With a new governor comes a new set of spending priorities in Trenton, and for Democrat Phil Murphy, that means moving New Jersey Transit to the front of the line when it comes to the state budget.
Murphy is proposing a state sales-tax hike in the $37.4 billion fiscal year 2019 budget and is trying to impress upon the public that they will get value for that additional money. A $242 million increase in the budget for NJ Transit, he says, will help the state’s beleaguered rail and bus agency enhance service, improve facilities, and hire more staff. It will also stave off any immediate fare hikes for commuters. Despite service reductions, commuters endured two fare hikes under former Gov. Chris Christie.
A better-functioning mass-transit system is a “centerstage” piece of Murphy’s goal of getting the state economy back on firmer footing.
“We are committed to turning things around, and our budget proves our commitment to riders, and to the men and women who work hard every single day on their behalf,” Murphy said during a news conference at the NJ Transit train station in Madison yesterday.
“We are putting in the financial resources needed for the long-term,” he said.
Yesterday’s event was the latest held by Murphy in the wake of last week’s budget address as he tries to sell a series of proposed tax hikes by stressing how the additional revenues would be used. The proposed hikes include a higher income-tax rate for those earning over $1 million, and a restoration of the 7 percent general sales-tax rate that had been in place for a decade before Christie convinced lawmakers to reduce it slightly in 2016.
It will ultimately be up to lawmakers to determine whether to accept Murphy’s proposed tax increases along with his broader budget goals, and the initial reaction of legislative leaders from Murphy’s own party have not been enthusiastic. But two of the Legislature’s top leaders on transportation stood alongside the governor yesterday to praise his prioritization of NJ Transit, suggesting mass-transit funding won’t be a controversial issue as the annual budget process plays out over the next several months.
“You can always tell where one’s priorities are by where we spend our dollars, and in this budget, seeing this increase for New Jersey Transit is so important, not only for the improvement it will bring, but the message that it sends to all of our commuters,” said Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Dan Benson (D-Mercer).
Once viewed as one of the nation’s best mass-transit agencies, NJ Transit struggled under Christie’s eight-year leadership as state funding was either cut back or replaced with monies raided from other sources, like the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the state’s Clean Energy Fund. The Republican Christie was also faulted by transportation advocates for hiking fares for NJ Transit customers even as the agency cut back services and hired — and gave raises — to many Christie allies.
‘…taken for a ride’
Murphy promised a new emphasis on mass transit and has brought in new leadership. He’s also ordered a comprehensive financial and operational audit. Last month, Murphy also announced immediate steps to address overcrowding, including by bringing more train cars back into service and working with suppliers to ease parts’ shortages.
In all, Murphy’s budget proposal increases the direct subsidy to NJ Transit by $242 million, but other changes being made to the off-budget sources of revenue that Christie relied on will cut into that total, leaving a net increase of $167 million. Murphy stressed yesterday that the increased funding would mean commuters would face no new fare increases at least through June 30 of next year.
“Customers have been taken for a ride long enough, and we cannot ask them to pay more right now,” Murphy said.
A big chunk of the increased state subsidy, about $120 million, would be used to help put the agency on a long-term path toward structural fiscal balance, he said. Another nearly $30 million would be used to offset a potential revenue shortfall from “unrealistic annual passenger revenue assumptions” that were inherited by the Murphy administration.
Good for motorists too
The budget plan also calls for $21 million to be spent on planned service increases for private carriers that operate light rail and bus services, and to keep up with bus-facility maintenance and needed technology improvements. Nearly $20 million would be used to boost NJ Transit’s workforce, with the planned hiring of 114 new employees to fill positions across the agency’s services, including bus, rail, light rail, transit police, and administration. Another $8 million would be devoted to service upgrades, scheduling improvements, and to enhance communication with customers, one of the areas that is a common source of complaints by commuters.
After Murphy rattled off how he wants to spend the increased funding that’s he’s proposing for NJ Transit, Benson, said the governor’s plans are “extremely heartening” to see in the wake of Christie’s tenure. Benson also said an improved mass-transit service would be good for New Jersey motorists since it would likely reduce the number of commuters who are driving to work because they’ve grown frustrated with NJ Transit.
“This investment not only helps everyone, it sends the important message that not only are we investing in the workforce, not only are we investing in operations, but we are also helping to improve communications,” said Benson, who also serves on the Assembly Budget Committee.
Murphy’s proposal was also praised by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Gordon, who led a series of legislative oversight hearings after the fatal NJ Transit rail accident at Hoboken Terminal in 2016.
“This budget message represents a very important turn in the road,” said Gordon (D-Bergen). “We are beginning to repair this organization.”