Governor pledges to fund NJ Transit without a fare hike

Transportation advocate Janna Chernetz spoke emphatically for every commuter frustrated by months of canceled NJ Transit trains.

“Absolutely under no circumstances can NJ Transit riders face another fare hike,” said Chernetz, deputy director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

This, as Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature start negotiating a new state budget. Murphy is also anxious to avoid fare increases, and Wednesday repeated the guarded promise from his proposed spending plan which offered a $100 million funding boost for the agency.

“If we can get this increase of investment in NJ Transit, and we’ll know that in the next couple of months, there will be no fare increase for another fiscal year. That’s a big deal. There wasn’t a fare increase this year,” said Murphy.

Which begs the question, what happens if budget talks get derailed over the governor’s proposed millionaire’s tax or other revenue disputes? Could that possibly end in a transit fare hike — good intentions not withstanding? NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett on Wednesday said probably not.

“I don’t see a scenario for that — for raising the fares. The budget fiscal year starts July 1,” Corbett said. “So I think if you look at the bigger numbers, I don’t see that as something we couldn’t work around if, for some reason, this didn’t go through.”

“While our fare box collections are very good at 50 percent, we cannot be successful without the support from the general fund,” said New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Guttierez-Scacccetti.

NJ Transit needs state funding for its day-to-day operations and has survived only by cannibalizing its capital funds. The governor’s proposed budget allots $407.5 million for the agency. That’s $100 million more than fiscal year 2019. The increase includes $25 million in new money and another $75 million to replace funds diverted from other sources. But that wasn’t enough for Senate Democrats.

“We think NJ Transit needs to be funded better than what they have in this budget. I don’t have much transit where I live, but I agree with the senator that we need to do better,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said Tuesday immediately following the governor’s budget address.

“We’re wide open to more investment in transportation and NJ Transit specifically, but we have to, at the same time, acknowledge what priorities are we making, and secondly, where are the sustainable sources of revenue that are going to support that?” said Murphy on Wednesday.

NJ Transit spent eight years on a starvation budget under former Gov. Chris Christie. It’s now training 17 new engineers to help fill a gaping personnel deficit, which is one reason trains get canceled. Last year it managed to get just enough positive train control equipment installed to meet federal deadlines, but only by taking cars, locomotives and entire lines — like the Atlantic City’s — out of service.

The AC line’s scheduled to reopen May 24, and South Jersey Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo wants a big slice of compensation in the new budget, stating, “ … I will fight to ensure some of that investment goes toward the AC Rail Line once it’s reopened, and the citizens of Atlantic County who’ve suffered without the train for the better part of a year.”

The budget process could get as cranky as a rush hour with canceled trains and stranded riders.

“A fare hike to fill budget gaps? That is avoidable. There needs to be a stable source of revenue and it cannot be on the backs of riders,” said Chernetz.

Of course budget negotiations could still go off the rails. They did last year. But any fare increase would definitely touch the third rail.