NJ Transit riders, get ready for possible fare hike next summer
METUCHEN – Among NJ Transit’s many problems flagged by auditors is a lack of strategic planning, aggravated by a lack of predictability about funding.
In Gov. Phil Murphy’s first year as governor, an increase in funding was provided through the state budget, not commuters. But while the report suggests alternatives that will be explored, the governor indicated a fare hike could be needed next summer.
“The commuter has borne the burden of funding this system for too long,” Murphy said. “So we’ve put in place, as I mentioned in my remarks, we’re holding off on any fare hike at least until next June 30. In a perfect world I’d love to see that go on even longer, but I’m not sure we’re in a perfect world.”
Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said other financial opportunities will be looked at first. She said the financial analysis will begin soon but that NJ Transit has been focused mostly on the audit and getting the positive train control safety system installed by a Dec. 31 federal deadline.
“It’s not even been discussed, so I wouldn’t – we’re not selling anything because we haven’t even done a look at what a fare increase would be,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
“So I don’t want commuters to get frightened by that conversation, to be honest,” she said. “It’s not a discussion that we’ve had. It’s not research that we’ve done. We’ve not been asked to do it. We’re going to look at every other opportunity to adjust our finances that doesn’t include the commuter.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, said the focus needs to be on the interests of commuters, property taxpayers and businesses and that there is a lot of government that can be looked at first before a fare hike.
“Once people in New Jersey, much less in the Legislature, have confidence that you’re getting 100 cents of value out of every dollar, then you can start talking about other opportunities,” Kean said.
To address the lack of a stable funding source and suggests looking at business-to-business institutional sales to corporations, universities and other groups; real estate development adjacent to train stations and along their right-of-way; energy cost savings; public-private partnerships; additional ridership and advertising; or dedicated taxes for transit.
Murphy said he will sit with legislative leaders to decide on a responsible way to fund transit.
“There are lots of different alternatives. I think it’s too early to hang our hat on any one of them,” Murphy said.
The audit says NJ Transit is near the top among big transit agencies for relying on fares for operating and maintenance funding, at 45 percent of the operating budget. It relies too much on unpredictable federal funding and repeated diversions of money meant for capital expenses, the audit said.
“We’ve lived too long, as we’ve seen, from borrowing Peter to pay Paul, and the net result was NJ Transit got too little relative to what it needed and the commuter beared too big a burden,” Murphy said.
“We need to make sure that we aren’t robbing Peter to pay Paul any more, which has happened for quite some time,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “We’ll run out of apostles.”
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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at email@example.com