Region’s states scramble for sources of transit funding

The Regional Plan Association’s annual assembly — designed to develop regional solutions — devolved into an every-state-for-itself scramble over transit funding, particularly New York City’s congestion pricing plan that would charge Jersey commuters $8 to $12 a pop to drive below 60th Street in Manhattan.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s demanding carve-outs for Jersey motorists who already pay George Washington Bridge and tunnel tolls, plus he wants a slice of revenues to help fund PATH and NJ Transit. But Friday’s panel — with not one Jersey representative — had few real answers.

“How do we make a fair system where you’re paying an appropriate amount to cover what’s happening and to fund transit systems? And look, for what it’s worth, I think New Jersey, yes, their transit system needs investment, too. I don’t know how we will solve that problem in the long run,” said Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.

“I think there needs to be a stronger voice for more transit funding in the state of New Jersey, absolutely,” said Kate Slevin, senior vice president for state programs and advocacy at the Regional Plan Association.

It’s all about the money. Murphy’s fiscal year 2020 budget gives NJ Transit a $25 million net funding bump. And don’t look to Washington, D.C., even though the Trump administration’s once again proposed $1 billion for infrastructure.

“In a perfect world, the federal government would be helping us more,” said New York Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez. “But part of that conversation is we are recognizing that we’re a little bit on our own in how we fund our immediate needs.”

The takeaway? States digging for dollars to upgrade transit are devising their own revenue raisers while hoping to minimize local pain. Connecticut’s looking at electronic tolls on Interstates 95 and 84.

“The best part about tolls is that at least 40%, maybe even over 50% of the total bill, would be paid for by you guys, the non-Connecticut residents,” said Connecticut State Sen. Alex Bergstein.

New Jersey’s also exploring mileage fees — a tax on distance traveled, instead of gasoline purchased. Before choosing congestion pricing, New York lawmakers debated other options to raise transit funding.

“There was ongoing discussion about a gas tax, what about a bump in sales tax, and all of those are tools in the toolbox. But this is the one that made the most sense because it is user driven,” said Rodriguez.

Ultimately, a good transit system powers a regional economic engine. But New York’s congestion pricing law specifically allots all its revenues to New York — notwithstanding the current battle between governors.

“Obviously Gov. Murphy has come out strong and I think that dialogue will unfold. I can’t predict where it will go,” said Trottenberg.

The governors of New York and New Jersey will hammer out congestion pricing carve-outs. But it probably won’t mean more money for NJ Transit. That would be a Jersey deal.