Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday that his budget for the coming year will not include a fare increase for NJ Transit, despite continuing uncertainty about how to close a looming multimillion-dollar gap in the funding for the state’s beleaguered mass transit system.
The first-term Democrat made the announcement as he attended another in a series of graduations of engineer trainees. Boosting the complement of trained operations is a high-priority item in the ongoing rebuild of NJ Transit, which has come under withering criticism from lawmakers and riders about service deficits, including trains that have had to be canceled due to manpower shortages.
For Tuesday, at least, New York-bound rail commuters welcomed word that, for the third year in a row, no fare increase is planned.
“No fare hike? Then that’s even better for ones like me with kids in college,” said Tawana Hall of Newark. “I’m commuting back and forth to work.”
For Julian Cooper of Hamilton, the news represents a significant daily savings.
“That’s a blessing,” he said. “I travel all the time to New York. I’m coming from Trenton, so that’s like $16, $17 a ticket.”
Political firestorm, commuter revolt
Murphy likely has little choice but to let fares ride. With riders taking half a million trips on NJ Transit trains a day, and more than 300,000 bus trips, raising ticket prices would probably have provoked a political firestorm and commuter revolt, given the agency’s ongoing struggle to improve service, reduce cancellations and replace an aging fleet.
Murphy acknowledged that the pace of progress has been slow. While performance has improved — with 35% fewer cancelled trains last year than in 2018 — there were still more than 3,000 cancellations.
“We’re all in this together, and we’re all in this for the long haul,” the governor said. “NJ Transit wasn’t broken in a day. It was broken down by a series of systematic failures over nearly a decade. And we can’t fix it in one day, either. But we’re moving in the right direction.”
The bad news? NJ Transit, which routinely cannibalizes its capital fund to support day-to-day operating expenses — $2.4 billion last year — is facing a $86 million budget hole.
The governor offered no revenue options Tuesday, even while saying that riders would not be asked to pay more. And his fellow Democrat, Senate President Steve Sweeney, has similarly said he would not support a fare increase.
Sweeney empaneled and is serving as chair on a special Senate select committee investigating service problems at NJ Transit, and that group too has yet to outline any proposals for identifying a separate funding source for the agency. The Gloucester County lawmaker has said it will do so before Murphy makes his annual budget speech to the Legislature.
NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett, who also was on hand at the graduation ceremony, was asked how the funding gap could be filled.
“If you look at different transit systems around the country, the ones that perform best are the ones that have dedicated revenue streams, funding streams,” he said. “So that certainly is a goal that I think both the governor and the Senate president have talked about.”
Tuesday’s graduation was the fourth that Murphy has presided over — seven new train drivers who received certificates after completing a 20-month course of study so difficult that half the class typically drops out.
“It’s harsh, and there’s no room for forgiveness, for mistakes or failure,” said engineer trainee Matthew Miller. “We’re about to be out there on our own, and we need to know what we’re doing.”
NJ Transit officials estimate the agency will have 375 engineers on board by this summer, enough, they say, to maintain current service levels, even as crews are diverted to test the new Positive Train Control safety system.