New Jersey Transit (NJT) is the largest statewide public transit system in the United States, serving hundreds of thousands of rail, bus, and light-rail riders per day. From the 1980s until the early 2000s, NJT was a model for the kind of high-quality, efficient, reliable public transit system other states aspired to build and maintain. Lately, however, NJT customers — especially rail commuters — have had a litany of legitimate gripes over deteriorating service, safety, and reliability.
With two recent derailments, two trains stalled in the rail tunnel under the Hudson River and regular equipment malfunctions, NJT’s rail system is in crisis. As we heard from NJT and Amtrak executives testifying at Friday’s joint legislative hearing into the recent problems, the lack of investment in rail infrastructure, the canceling of a desperately needed new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey, and the near-impossible task of making repairs to the busiest rail network in the country overnight and on weekends have all exacted a toll.
Assemblywoman Liz Muoio said she and her colleagues in the 15th Legislative District receive more complaints about NJT service than any other issue. She cited not just the obvious inconvenience and frayed nerves that happen when a one-hour commute turns into a three-hour commute, but more importantly, it’s the missed soccer games and cold dinners, it’s the stress of being late to a job interview or missing an important work meeting.
The widespread inefficiency of our public transportation system also negatively impacts the state’s economy and our environment. Cars and trucks are the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change and air pollution in the state. Safe, affordable, reliable public transportation gets cars off the roads. A dependable, accessible transportation system encourages businesses to stay, expand, or relocate here. In cities, less car exhaust means fewer health problems such as childhood asthma, and more economic opportunity for urban residents to reach jobs in and outside their city.
It’s fair to say that New Jersey’s economic future, our environment and the wellbeing of our roughly 9 million residents depend on a robust public transportation system. Fortunately, strong leadership and a commitment to invest in NJ Transit (rather than divert the state subsidy year after year) can put our ailing public rail system on a track to health. But the fix won’t come cheap and it won’t happen without a strong commitment on the part of our next governor.
Whoever is elected in November must be willing to end years of indifference to the benefits of public transportation by making up in words and deeds for the neglect bestowed on NJT for the past eight years. The next governor must:
Restore state funding for NJT — plus allocate adequate funding for capital projects by increasing the percentage of Transportation Trust Fund monies dedicated to public transit.
Support the Gateway tunnel.
Develop a comprehensive plan to improve transit infrastructure, safety, and reliability.
Appoint qualified experts in public transportation — and jettison political appointees — to run NJT.
Freeze fares and/or develop a plan to improve affordability, especially for low-income riders.
Increase train frequency.
Improve bike and pedestrian access to stations.
Studies show significant economic, public health, and environmental benefits accrue in communities connected to safe, reliable, convenient public transportation. The next governor will have the opportunity to lay the groundwork for what happens next.