Op-Ed: Extra Budget Allocation for NJ Transit is ‘Woefully Insufficient’

Nat Bottigheimer | May 8, 2019 | Opinion
The agency has been relying on an entirely unsustainable funding source, directing money meant for capital improvements to day-to-day operations

Nat Bottigheimer
Inadequate, uncertain and unsustainable: These three words were used to describe the state of funding for New Jersey Transit in a 2018 North Highland audit of the agency. They weren’t wrong seven months ago, and they’re no less true today.

The state’s transit system has been suffering over the past several years, with significant declines in both rail and bus ridership. And while NJ Transit rail ridership is on the rise just this past year, major investments must be made to arrest decline, improve service and give New Jerseyans the transit system they need — and deserve.

New Jersey’s extensive public transportation network is one of its greatest economic strengths, spurring new job opportunities and population growth. One million riders make nearly 270 million passenger trips a year, traveling within the Garden State and to New York, Philadelphia and other major hubs. These connections are crucial for the regional economy, since residential growth in New Jersey has for the past decade housed a workforce that New York’s economy increasingly relies on.

But the system is even more important for trips within New Jersey, especially for cities like Newark and Trenton, where the inability to own a car is a substantial barrier to jobs or education, especially for vulnerable households. And it’s not just a north or central Jersey issue. Restoring NJ Transit is necessary to enabling transit-system expansions that support the revitalization of Camden and connect South Jersey communities to job centers in and around Philadelphia. No one expands a house on a shaky foundation.

And yet discussions of growth seem insurmountable at this point, as the $25 million more allocated for NJ Transit in this year’s budget is woefully insufficient for even the most basic costs like the mandated growth in payroll and health insurance. It doesn’t cover the funding needed to implement recommendations from the audit and, in fact, the allocation given to NJ Transit equates to $50 million less than it received last year because of inflation and rises in insurance, healthcare and other costs.

Using capital dollars to support underfunded operations

The additional funding that NJ Transit needs would serve myriad purposes — many highlighted in the audit — including hiring new staff in critical bus and rail operator, mechanic, and conductor positions; expanding or enhancing service in high-growth areas, like the northern New Jersey bus system; improved customer communication; a new procurement process and updated organizational structure; and finding more sustainable operating revenue sources. NJ Transit needs to finally move away from years of using capital dollars to support underfunded operations and actually use those funds for system repairs and upgrades.

Where funds come from to meet NJ Transit’s needs may be the $100-million question. The rate of the growth in state government costs needs to be addressed just as surely as new revenue sources must be tapped. For years, NJ Transit has been relying on an entirely unsustainable funding source, where money meant for capital improvements, like stations, new trains and buses, is directed to day-to-day operations. In fact, 20 percent of the operating budget is from these capital transfers.

In the long run, this damaging situation must be remedied, so NJ Transit can once again become the world-class system it used to be. This will also require new revenue sources, so the state doesn’t diminish vital investments in housing or education to pay for transportation.

As NJ Transit budget hearings get underway next week, it is critical that the governor and Legislature not miss an opportunity to achieve something they all want — a well-run, high-quality transit system that supports the state’s economic growth, our environment, and wide access to opportunity.