Is $25 million enough to make immediate progress in fixing New Jersey Transit? Some key lawmakers don’t think it is and have shown a willingness to heed the call of leading transportation advocates who want to see more aid going to the beleaguered mass-transit agency in the impending state budget.
Whether Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration will take them up on the offer remains in question.
The issue of NJ Transit funding and whether Murphy’s own budget proposal provides enough money to cover things like rising labor costs was a hot topic during a lengthy budget hearing in Trenton yesterday.
Leading the way was Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who echoed the concerns of transportation advocates at a news conference earlier in the day. They maintained the net increase of $25 million that Murphy is calling for in fiscal year 2020 isn’t nearly enough. NJ Transit’s labor costs alone are going up by $35 million, Weinberg said.
Weinberg credited the Murphy administration for making improvements after NJ Transit was largely abandoned during former Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure. But she also pointed to angry social-media messages she receives from customers on a daily basis to show that more work needs to be done.
“We need to give you resources, so help us,” Weinberg said to transportation officials at the hearing.
‘$25 million or $50 million or $75 million’
But her offer of “$25 million or $50 million or $75 million” in additional state aid wasn’t openly embraced by Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti during the hearing. Instead, the commissioner asked lawmakers to “be patient with us” as she echoed Murphy’s position that fixing NJ Transit is a long-term endeavor.
“We don’t want you to think we’re not asking for more money because we don’t think we could use it,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “We’re trying to say, ‘We’re going to take what you give us and we’re going to make the best of every dollar.’”
The clash over NJ Transit funding is just the latest to erupt between lawmakers and the Murphy administration as they face the final weeks before the state’s June 30 deadline for the adoption of a new budget. It remains to be seen whether other issues related to spending and revenue, including Murphy’s call for the establishment of a true millionaire’s tax will be resolved. That uncertainty is fueling concerns that there could be a government shutdown this summer. Also lingering in the background is an ongoing feud over the future of the state’s economic-development tax-incentive programs that is further straining Murphy’s relationship with top legislative leaders.
In all, the $38.6 billion budget plan that Murphy, a first-term Democrat, proposed to lawmakers in March would boost the state subsidy for NJ Transit operations by $100 million, bringing it to $407.5 million. That marks a significant increase compared to the $141 million that Christie, a Republican, funded the same budget line item during his last year in office.
But the net increase for the transit agency gets whittled away as Murphy at the same time is seeking to reverse previous funding gimmicks, including scaling back by $25 million a significant fund diversion to NJ Transit from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority that was begun during Christie’s tenure. Another $50 million fund transfer that lawmakers snuck into the FY2019 budget for NJ Transit operations from the state Transportation Trust Fund’s capital reserves would also be undone under Murphy’s FY2020 budget plan.
Operating budget would increase by 1.1 percent
Under the Murphy budget proposal, the agency would be left with the net funding boost of $25 million, which would force it to continue to transfer a total of $460 million from its capital account to help cover operating costs in FY2020. Even with the capital transfer, the agency’s operating budget would increase by just 1.1 percent over FY2019, to $2.34 billion, according to an analysis prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services in advance of yesterday’s hearing. Fares would continue to be the agency’s largest source of revenue, at $986 million, while another $82 million would be transferred to it from the state’s Clean Energy Fund.
The state of the agency’s budget was a key concern raised earlier yesterday during the news conference that was held at the State House by leading transportation advocates. Ultimately, they want to see a dedicated source of funding created so NJ Transit doesn’t have to rely so heavily on rider fares and the state budget subsidy.
“After decades of neglect, it is time to put NJ Transit on the path towards fiscal solvency and that needs to start with FY20,” said Janna Chernetz, deputy director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who is an expert on the agency’s finances.
“Paying for transit operations with capital dollars is like using the college fund to pay for groceries,” said Nat Bottigheimer, New Jersey director for the Regional Plan Association.
Weinberg aired similar concerns during the hearing, saying the $25-million increase would leave NJ Transit ill-equipped to make up ground following the disinvestment of the Christie years.
Commissioner not keen to divert funds from turnpike
“I can’t say that I have often in my long years in the Legislature appeared before a committee on the opposite side of the bureaucracy trying to convince them that they need more money. That doesn’t happen too often,” Weinberg said.
Later, she said at least $25 million should be added back to the state budget subsidy for NJ Transit by allowing the $25 million diversion from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to continue.
“You know what? It seems to be in pretty good shape,” Weinberg said of the turnpike.
But Gutierrez-Scaccetti quickly responded by calling New Jersey’s toll roads the “lifeblood” of the state economy as they serve commerce related to ports in the north and south of the state and other important sectors of the economy.
“The funding for New Jersey Turnpike’s capital plan is slim,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti, a former executive director of the highway agency.
“There’s still work to do,” she added, citing projects in South Jersey and bridge repairs as examples. “If I felt the turnpike was in the position to provide that money to transit, I would say ‘no issue.’”
“Will $25 million more make a difference to New Jersey Transit? Not really,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
Afterward, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, questioned whether Gutierrez-Scaccetti and NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett had gone to bat hard enough for the agency’s finances during the hearing.
“The Cabinet officers are representing the governor’s position, and not their agencies’ positions,” Tittel said. “That’s the problem.”