Advocates demand funding for cash-starved NJ Transit

NJ Transit officials got the hot seat for Senate Budget Committee presentations, much like commuters waiting for late trains on a sweltering summer day. It started early with a coalition of alarmed advocates who claimed the transit agency remains chronically underfunded.

“It needs to have a dedicated source of funding to ensure that people, when they get on the bus or the train, get from Point A to Point B. And right now we have a crisis of confidence from transit riders and the public on whether NJ Transit is going to work for them,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

“Right now, though, we have people tweeting all the time about ‘The train is late’ or ‘I can’t sit on a train’ and that’s a huge problem, both because people need to get where they’re going and they need to get there safely,” said Missy Rebovich, director of government and public affairs at New Jersey Future.

After years of starvation budgets, NJ Transit’s gotten renewed attention after Gov. Phil Murphy ordered an audit, signed a reform law and promised more money. But his proposed fiscal year 2020 budget increases NJ Transit funding by a scant $25 million, or 1%, and it still raids $460 million from the agency’s capital fund to help pay for daily operations.

“This is truly like using the college fund to pay for groceries, and it’s a financial habit that any of us, any of you, would advise a friend to break,” said Nat Bottigheimer, New Jersey director at the Regional Plan Association.

NJ Transit relies on commuter fares to pay half its operating expenses while other public transit systems only use 28% to 31%. The agency projects a looming funding gap of $138 million within just three years. Without a dedicated funding source, where’s the money to plug that hole coming from?

“It cannot be through commuters. It cannot be through any more fare hikes,” said Janna Chernetz, deputy director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“We are continuing our commitment to the customer by again not raising fares in fiscal 2020,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett.

Corbett presented his budget to senators, noting he’s hired 158 engineers and conductors and that train cancellations are down 50% from last year. But Sen. Loretta Weinberg said the agency needs another $75 million just to cover increased costs and avoid a deficit and suggested NJ Transit keep a $25 million subsidy it receives from the Turnpike.

“I can’t say that I have often, in my long years in the Legislature, appeared before a committee, on the other side of the bureaucracy, trying to convince them that they need more money,” Weinberg said. “Nobody that I know of has a magic wand in your back pocket. We need to give you resources, so help us.”

“If I thought another $25 million would make a difference, it helps. It covers Kevin’s increased labor costs, but it’s not moving the needle on capital,” said Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti. “We don’t ever want you to think we’re not asking for money because we don’t think we could use it. We’re trying to say we’re going to take what you give us and we are going to make the best of every dollar.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney agrees that NJ Transit’s underfunded. He questioned the governor’s budget priorities, but said he’s not prepared to raise taxes for transit. Everyone’s looking ahead to next week’s tax revenues report from Treasury as the budget process gets serious.