A capital plan unveiled this week by New Jersey Transit calls for nearly $17 billion in spending over five years, with a long list of bus, rail and infrastructure projects put in line for full funding.
The agency’s detailed plan also identifies about $11 billion in available resources, counting all federal and state sources of revenue.
But left as a big unanswered question, at least for now, is exactly how the nearly $6 billion gap will be closed.
Agency officials are stressing the importance of releasing a long-term vision even while acknowledging its spending ambitions don’t match the pot of money currently within its reach, suggesting there’s value to showing what it will take to help NJ Transit return to form.
But also left uncertain is which capital projects could be sidelined if the full, $17 billion in funding doesn’t materialize over the next five years as the state struggles to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
NJ Transit was already being closely scrutinized by lawmakers after years of operational struggles, and now some of them have begun raising new concerns about how capital projects will be prioritized if resources remain limited.
Lack of dependable funding
Once known as one of the nation’s top transportation agencies, New Jersey’s mass transit agency has struggled since the Great Recession, as funding to support operations from the state budget has become a source of annual intrigue in Trenton.
A major audit commissioned by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who took office in 2018, flagged the agency’s lack of predictable operating funding from the state budget, calling its revenue stream “inadequate, uncertain, and unsustainable.”
There have also been concerns about the capital side of the ledger. NJ Transit receives support from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund — an off-budget account supported by the state’s gas tax. The agency also qualifies for federal grants and matching dollars.
But the Murphy administration has continued a practice of using capital funds to help subsidize ongoing operations. Those transfers will likely continue under the five-year capital plan unveiled on Monday, agency officials confirmed on Tuesday.
Earlier this year, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) proposed a plan to dedicate up to $500 million in new operating revenue for NJ Transit to help ease the pressure. But that plan, which tapped the corporate business tax, among other sources, appears to be on hold as the state navigates its own severe fiscal challenges in the wake of the pandemic.
Sweeney cited the budget problems and over $1 billion that NJ Transit has received from the federal government amid the pandemic in a statement Tuesday indicating he remains “committed to providing a dedicated source of operating funding for NJ Transit.”
“Clearly, when this federal money goes away, we are going to need to push forward to provide NJ Transit with dedicated operating funding it can count on — like other transit agencies around the country,” Sweeney said.
The value of planning
Even without having all of its capital-funding sources lined up, agency officials say listing all of the projects that could be launched with a fully funded capital plan puts it in a better position to seek additional dollars, including money from the federal government.
“This vision allows us to better position the agency to take advantage of funding opportunities and helps our elected officials, such as our Congressional delegation, to strongly advocate for this additional funding, knowing they have a clear roadmap in hand of tangible projects where these dollars will be invested and the benefits these projects will create for the region and economy,” NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said Tuesday.
Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit’s executive director, said during a media briefing in Trenton earlier this week that the plan also shows “what it takes to be a first-class system.”
“There’s no doubt by having that, it really helps galvanize businesses, civic groups, environmental groups, to help that advocacy for the funding, both at the federal level with our congressional delegation, as well as working with the Legislature to help get dedicated funding for New Jersey Transit,” Corbett said.
During the same briefing, Murphy signaled a reluctance to push more financial burden onto riders, who faced a series of fare hikes during the tenure of his predecessor, Republican Chris Christie.
Meanwhile, NJ Transit also put forward a 10-year “strategic plan” that spelled out other long-term goals for the agency, which has come under fire in recent years for regular service disruptions and poor communications with riders who often have to navigate past last-minute cancellations.
“Old infrastructure causes service disruptions and NJ Transit’s new capital plan will go a long way toward improving system reliability and state of good repair, giving all riders a better, faster commute,” said Bob Briant, Jr., chief executive officer of the state Utility and Transportation Contractors Association.
Critics cite delays
But others are raising concerns about the capital plan, including how it was assembled and how certain projects were listed as near-term priorities, while others were slated for funding over a longer period that could last more than a decade.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, questioned why electric buses are not a front-burner priority.
“This new plan doesn’t look at electric buses at all until 2024 even though they need to start now,” Tittel said. “Given that coronavirus risk has been linked to air pollution, NJ Transit needs to accelerate their electric bus timeline to get us to 100% electric as fast as possible.”
Senate Majority Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) raised concerns about pushing off a bulk of the spending on a proposed northern branch of the Hudson-Bergen light rail system until after 2030. She said that project is needed now more than ever, and labeled the potential delay a “big disappointment.”
Weinberg, a longtime critic of the agency, said it’s now up to NJ Transit’s board to set priorities within the fiscal constraints.
“I think the NJ Transit board should be discussing this in detail and deciding whether they want to have public hearings (and) get stakeholder input,” she said. “I think there are big questions about the priorities.”