As New Jersey Transit commuters continue to fume about the agency’s declining service, its board voted unanimously yesterday in favor of new operating and capital budgets that boost spending by a combined $200 million.
Budget documents made available before the board’s morning meeting in Newark showed the spending increase will help the agency hire new employees, including train engineers. Staffing issues have been blamed for helping cause a raft of last-minute cancellations or “annulments” that have been angering riders this summer.
There will also be more spending on equipment to improve reliability and safety, including the positive train control technology the agency is pushing to install by the end of the year to remain in compliance with federal regulations.
Commuters get chance to sound off
But a long line of commuters and transportation advocates gave the board an earful during yesterday’s public meeting, faulting the agency for not doing a better job of planning and communicating with riders. Some also noted that even as Gov. Phil Murphy has been touting increased funding for NJ Transit in the new state budget, the administration has carried on the practice of raiding the agency’s capital account to help sustain the operating budget — something Murphy specifically criticized his predecessor for doing while running for governor in 2017.
“It’s a new administration, but it’s the same old abuse,” said Joseph Clift, a former Long Island Rail Road planning official who keeps close tabs on NJ Transit issues.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers announced yesterday that they will be holding a hearing next week to go over the agency’s latest issues, with NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett among those who will be invited to testify.
NJT’s growing operating budget
Despite shifts in funding between accounts, NJ Transit’s operating budget for the 2019 fiscal year is growing by nearly $100 million to $2.32 billion. The budget documents indicate the biggest portion of the increased spending — about $60 million — will cover costs related to employees, including their benefits.
The agency forecasts an increase in overall revenue, but it was offset in part by NJ Transit cutting what is expected from passenger fares — a nearly $30 million reduction — blaming what it called “unrealistic assumptions” that were made by the administration of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. There will be no fare increase in fiscal 2019, but the operating budget also carries on Christie’s practice of raiding the state’s Clean Energy Fund, for $82.1 million, with another $154 million coming from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
A total of $511 million in capital funds will also be used to sustain operations in fiscal 2019, which officially began on July 1, boosting that category by $50 million. The capital budget totals $1.46 billion, an increase of nearly $100 million compared with the agency’s fiscal 2018 capital plan.
As a candidate for governor, Murphy, a Democrat, decried Christie’s “lack of fiscal discipline,” saying the agency’s capital funds should “be used to make essential investments to expand service.”
NJ Transit officials noted yesterday that Murphy’s original state budget proposal for fiscal 2019 called for fewer transfers than those ultimately authorized by the Legislature and said there remains a commitment to reverse the status quo. Murphy press secretary Dan Bryan also issued a statement that said, “just as NJ Transit did not get into this mess overnight, we will not get out of it overnight.”
“We have begun on the long road back to restoring NJ Transit as a world-class transportation agency, one that New Jersey commuters can rely on daily,” the statement said.
But the riders and advocates who spoke during the meeting yesterday were largely unimpressed with the increased spending, or the board’s approval of a 10-year lease agreement that will bring Starbucks into space inside Newark Penn Station. Some testified forcefully about facing long delays and last-minute cancellations, saying this summer has been worse than last year even though 2017 was supposed to be the “Summer of Hell,” after service was disrupted due to repairs inside Penn Station in New York.
Mary Migacz, a longtime rail commuter from Colonia, said one of the recent train delays at the Rahway station lasted the same amount of time it would take to fly to Florida.
“I have been riding NJ Transit for 38 years and there has only been one other year that I can recall that has been worse than this year,” Migacz said.
Clift, the former railroad planner, asked board members to say whether they took the train or an agency bus to attend yesterday’s meeting. After none said they did, he responded: “That’s a basic problem we have.”
Cancellations disrupt lives
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union) also addressed the board, telling members that the last-minute cancellations are forcing her constituents to reshuffle their plans on a regular basis, including with daycare and other services.
“It upends their entire lives,” said Munoz, whose district is bisected by both the Morris & Essex and Raritan Valley lines, which are two of NJ Transit’s busiest services.
“Last summer was supposed to be the ‘Summer of Hell,’ but it has been nothing compared to this summer,” she said.
Earlier this month, NJ Transit announced that it will be temporarily halting direct, single-seat trips into Manhattan on the Raritan Valley line and suspending all service on the Atlantic City line. The service changes will begin in September and last through “early 2019,” the agency said. Those changes follow others that went into effect in June that are impacting the Northeast Corridor, Morris & Essex, North Jersey Coast, and Pascack Valley lines.
The same general explanation has been provided for all of the recent service suspensions and adjustments: NJ Transit is installing the federally mandated positive train control equipment on its entire fleet and other infrastructure, which affects the agency’s available equipment and manpower.
But Corbett told reporters after yesterday’s meeting that another reason for this summer’s problems has been a surge in last-minute and unscheduled absences by engineers, which upsets an already tight staffing schedule. He also blamed a lack of attention paid to the staffing issues by the prior administration.
“Now we have to ramp up and get a net of about 30 or 40 engineers,” Corbett said.
The staffing problems are likely to come up during the August 16 hearing that lawmakers are now planning to hold in Trenton. Also up for discussion will be the temporary suspension of the Atlantic City line and the other service changes, according to Dan Benson, the chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee.
“We will hear from stakeholders and discuss what is being done to safely resolve commuters’ and the traveling public’s concerns,” said Benson (D-Mercer).