By David Cruz
Most commuters knew it was coming. Others got sticker shock when they bought their tickets this morning. Another NJ Transit fare hike – nine percent this time – and service cuts across the board. It’s the result of a $60 million budget shortfall in the agency. Commuters who rely on transit were, today, shrugging their shoulders saying, in essence, what are you going to do?
“I have no choice,” said one. “I have to get to work. I have to take public transportation, so I’m resigned.”
Others lamented the double whammy of fare increases and toll hikes. “I’ve got two businesses, so today I’m on the train and when I go home, I’m going to take a shower, jump in my truck and then I got to go to New York. So, they get me both ways.”
But, why a fare increase. Doesn’t the state provide hundreds of millions in subsidies for the agency from the general fund? Well, the answer is yes, and no.
“In 2005, NJ Transit was receiving close to $300 million in operating assistance,” explained Janna Chernetz, New Jersey Advocate with the Tri-State Transportation campaign. “In 2016 – the fiscal year that we’re in – that number dwindled down to a mere $33 million. That hole has been plugged with diversions from the ARC project – Access to the Region’s Core – that was $295 million that was diverted to NJ Transit as well as raids from the Clean Energy Fund, that was $62 million this year to make up for that lack of operating assistance coming from the state.”
All of that to say that next year, the agency – which already relies on commuter fares more heavily than similar transportation agencies – will have to scramble again to fill its operating budget. Chernetz says the agency needs a dedicated funding source, which brings us to the Transportation Trust Fund, the TTF. Lawmakers, business leaders, transportation advocates and even just plain folks say they support an increase. But, after a whole year of talk, nobody expects anything to get done until after the November Assembly elections. This week, the governor, who said the TTF crisis was a “media creation” reiterated his position.
“I will consider any option that’s presented to me as long as those options include tax fairness for the people of New Jersey,” he told a business group on Monday. “Republicans should not be giving away any votes for an increase in the gas tax. None. Zero.”
By tax fairness, the governor means the inheritance tax and the estate tax, both of which he says have to go. Democrats, who control the legislature, have been hinting that they’re ready to deal, but, as the governor noted this week, have passed on the opportunity to vote on the increase themselves. Democrats say the reason they haven’t is because they know the governor will veto it. And around in that circle they continue to go.
In the meantime, dig deeper, and hope that, this year, political leaders find common ground so that – this time next year – we’re not talking about another NJ Transit fare hike.