By Steve Sweeney
The record shows that the Legislature has added $240 million more to New Jersey Transit’s operating subsidy since 2013, increasing the percentage of state operating support to 28 percent of its budget. However, last March the governor’s budget recommended only a $25 million increase in total $2.1 billion operating budget for NJ Transit, the nation’s third-largest mass transit network that is responsible for carrying more than 900,000 passengers a day.
We were disappointed because $25 million didn’t even cover their increased contract costs. The non-partisan Office of Legislative Services confirmed it was the second-lowest percentage increase in Transit’s operating budget since 2007 and came a year after commuters had been rocked by a wave of train cancellations, delays and breakdowns that was worse than the 2017 “Summer of Hell.”
We learned that Transit’s request for more than $150 million was turned down by the state Treasury. During budget proceedings the Legislature concluded that the governor’s budget recommendation was too little. Our worries of a funding shortage were confirmed when NJ Transit’s four-year budget showed it was facing a $131 million budget shortfall by next summer.
Despite repeated requests, administration officials never provided the budget information on NJ Transit’s needs to the Legislature. Even Senate Majority Leader Weinberg was not allowed to meet with Transit officials. Despite the stonewalling, we added an additional $50 million in June to NJ Transit’s budget.
Since then, an investigation by NJ Advance Media (NJ.com) revealed that NJ Transit trains were cancelled due to staffing shortages or mechanical breakdowns at a rate four times greater than surrounding states. The New York Times even cited one of NJ Transit’s trains as the “worst train in the country,” a dubious distinction emblematic of the agency’s operational problems.
It’s not just trains. Bus operations are a constant problem as well. Social media pages are crammed with complaints. Ask any bus, rail or light rail passenger if their commute has improved in the last two years and the answer will usually be “no.”
This is not acceptable. The crisis at NJ Transit hurts our economic competitiveness, housing values and the quality of life of more than a million commuters and their families. We need answers and we need to fix NJ Transit.
The significantly negative impact to the quality of life of our commuters is why I created the Senate Select Committee on New Jersey Transit and it is only the second time since becoming Senate President that I am chairing a select committee.
We’re not starting from scratch. The Senate and Assembly in 2017 held joint hearings on NJ Transit that produced important reforms, including one that has alerted us to the agency’s $131 million budget gap.
The findings of that committee on the extent of the crisis -- critical shortage of locomotive engineers, persistent underfunding, and mismanagement -- were communicated directly and forcefully to the administration.
Commuters don’t want someone to blame, they want someone to fix it. They want to know that their train or bus is going to be there on time.
They also don’t want to be told they are going to be paying more money for unreliable service. Frankly, it worries me that the groundwork for a fare hike is being considered on commuters who are already paying one of the highest percentages of revenue in the country. Increasing fares will reduce ridership at a time when we need to do everything we can to encourage mass transit and do our share to combat climate change.
Our mission is to figure out who will fix NJ Transit, not just for now, but for the future. That means making New Jersey a leader in committing to an all-electric bus fleet to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, if not sooner.
It also means having an honest conversation on where the money will come from for our share of the new Gateway tunnels, doubled rail capacity and “one-seat rides” to Manhattan on every NJ Transit rail line; for the extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line to Englewood and construction of the Gloucester-Camden Light Rail Line, and for rail freight expansion for Port Newark and Paulsboro.
This is no time for complacency, for muddling through from budget to budget, for expecting commuters to wait until next year for reliable service. It’s time to take a hard look at the facts, at where NJ Transit is, and where we want it to be.