With less than two months left before New Jersey Transit’s board is scheduled to vote on a proposal to cut services and raise fares by 9 percent, a new coalition of transportation advocates, environmental organizations, labor, and other groups said it is planning an aggressive campaign to oppose the changes.
The members of the New Jersey for Transit coalition that launched yesterday said its first goal is to organize opposition to the fare hike, which, if approved, would be the agency’s second in the past five years. But a primary mission of the new group will also be to generate long-term support for investment in mass transit in New Jersey and bring more awareness to the state’s ailing Transportation Trust Fund.
“We should be investing in public transportation, not cutting it when our state has among the highest use of public transit of any state across the country,” said Ray Greaves, chairman of the New Jersey Amalgamated Transit Union State Council, one of the members of the coalition.
“A robust public-transit system is critical to our state’s economy,” Greaves said.
New Jersey Transit officially announced the 9 percent fare hike proposal and planned cuts to both rail and bus service in April. Agency officials say the changes will help close a $60 million budget gap.
A final vote on the proposal is scheduled for July 8, but the agency is holding a series of public information sessions and hearings this month.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said there’s plenty of time to organize opposition to the fare hikes. Commuters will be urged to sign a petition over the next few weeks at stations, but also online.
“We’ve never organized before like this,” Fulop said. “We’re going to be aggressive.”
Fulop spoke during a news conference held yesterday afternoon with several members of the coalition at the busy Exchange Place light-rail station. He said New Jersey Transit could sell off properties it owns in his town and others to help raise the funds needed to close the budget gap.
“There’s no long-term plan or vision,” Fulop said.
Paterson Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres also had sharp words for the proposed fare increase, calling it “unthinkable.” He said residents of his city would have to choose between “paying more for transportation and providing their families with basic needs.”
“It’s not fair to balance your budget on the backs of those trying to do their best to provide for their families,” he said.
[related]New Jersey Transit, which spends roughly $2 billion annually, last approved a fare hike in 2010 when rail and some bus fares were increased by as much as 25 percent. But costs tied to employee benefits, liability insurance, and workers’ compensation have risen since then, bringing on the need for another fare hike, agency officials said.
And even after finding $40 million in savings by looking at overtime, fuel, energy, and vehicle-parts expenditures, agency officials said the $60 million gap remains.
Asked for comment yesterday, New Jersey Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder pointed to the series of information sessions and public hearings the agency is holding. The first is an information session scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the New Brunswick Public Library. Others events are being held throughout next week in Atlantic City, Freehold, Secaucus, Camden, Newark, Hackensack, Trenton, Morristown, and Paterson.
“As we have said, this is an open public process,” Snyder said. “We encourage all interested parties to attend one of our 10 public sessions with the first scheduled this Saturday.”
But the proposed fare hikes also come amid a broader transportation-funding problem in New Jersey, one that stretches far beyond the services provided by New Jersey Transit. At the heart of the problem is the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, a pot of money that pays for road, bridge, and rail improvements across New Jersey but no longer has a stable source of revenue.
Primarily supported with money raised by tolls and revenue from the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax, the fund also draws a federal match that boosts total transportation spending to over $3 billion annually. But unless a new source of revenue, such as a gas-tax hike, wins approval, in a short time there will only be enough money coming in to pay off the fund’s existing debt.
Gov. Chris Christie’ administration has patched together only enough funding to sustain transportation spending through June 30, 2016.
The Republican governor and Democrats who control the Legislature had been involved in talks to identify a long-term funding solution, but they broke down earlier this year as Christie began to focus more of his attention on exploring a run for president in 2016 and as lawmakers began to look ahead to this year’s legislative elections. All 80 seats in the state Assembly are up for grabs in November.
“The governor and the Legislature must find a long-term, sustainable funding source to meet all New Jersey’s increasing transportation needs,” said Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “It is simply inexcusable to stick New Jersey Transit users with the bill.”
In all, commuters are facing their eighth fare increase since 1988, the last time the gas tax was raised.
“New Jersey Transit balancing the budget on the back of commuters is wrong,” said Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s Sierra Club. “The fare increase will mean fewer riders and less revenue, leading to more fare increases and service cuts in the long run. It will mean less people riding buses and trains and more people driving in cars, creating more traffic and more air pollution.”
And Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families, said the fare increase would amount to a tax hike even if the Christie administration isn’t using that label.
“It’s an increase in cost for working families. It is a tax increase,” she said.