NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ— NJ Transit (NJT) has announced its proposal for a 9% fare hike that would affect all of the agency's train and bus lines beginning in October.
Currently a one-way ticket from the New Brunswick station to New York Penn Station costs $13, and with the proposed increase, that price would go or $14.17.
Monthly commuter passes for the same trip would increase more than $33 to $393.49. NJ Transit reports that two individual train routes and six bus routes could also be cut, with one of them at least partly operating in Middlesex County.
According to an analysis of NJ Transit's financial situation by the Office of Legislative Services (OLS), the fare increase could bring in $101 billion in 2016, compared to the $928.6 million projected for 2015.
NJ Transit has maintained the increase would go to pay costs for "contract services" like Access Link, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, and private carriers, as well as increases in "healthcare and benefits, general liability insurances, workers compensation and pensions."
The agency's most recent fare increases came in 2010, when fares increased by as much as 22% across the state.
The proposed cuts to train services would eliminate the last trains to Hoboken out of the Montclair and Boonton lines. Two of the bus lines could also lose late night service, those being the 419 Camden-Pennsauken and the 463 Woodbury-Alvandale Park-Ride.
Another three bus lines could be terminated altogether: the 655 Princeton-Plainsboro, the 307 Freehold-Great Adventure and the 318 Philadelphia-Great Adventure.
"NJ Transit has been left with a significant budget gap," reads a NJT press release, "Although NJ Transit has identified more than $40 million in reductions in overtime, fuel savings, energy and vehicle parts efficiencies, the agency still faces an approximate $60 million budget gap for the 2016 fiscal year."
An Asbury Park Press report showed that 1,100 of NJ Transit's 11,000 employees make over $100,000 a year.
Michael Drewniak, a former spokesperson for Governor Christie, recently secured a $147,400 job as "director of policy and strategic planning," $10,400 more than he made as the Governor's chief spokesperson.
The fare hikes are subject to public hearings scheduled in advance of a final vote at the NJT Board of Directors meeting in Newark on July 8.
An "information session," not to be confused with a public hearing, will be held on Saturday, May 16, from 1:00 to 4:00pm in the community room of the New Brunswick Free Public Library at 60 Livingston Avenue.
Written comments will also be accepted on NJT's website, up until 11:59 pm on May 21.
Christie's 2016 budget proposal would trim the state subsidy for NJ Transit by more than 17%, from $40.3 million to $33.2 million, starting on July 1.
Nancy Snyder, a spokesperson for the Governor's Office, has pointed to additional money coming in from the NJ Turnpike Authority and state Clean Energy Fund as reasoning for the subsidy reduction.
"The reduction in Transit’s General Fund subsidy has been largely attributable to further utilization of other resources, including the Clean Energy Fund and Turnpike Authority monies," Snyder told NJ Spotlight.
Democrats and transportation advocates have been hard on the Governor for not prioritizing passenger rail infrastructure during his time in office.
"I’m appalled at this terrible approach to transportation policy and astonished by the lack of regard for the working people of New Jersey who rely on New Jersey Transit to make ends meet,” said Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto.
“This is both unsustainable and irresponsible,” said Middlesex County Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the chair of the Assembly’s Transportation Committee.
The fare hikes and reduction in funding come amid the backdrop of a larger debate over how to fund the state's Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), which is used to fund infrastructure projects like repairs and upgrades to roads, bridges, tunnels and railways.
The fund, which depends on a 14.5-cent gas tax, along with toll revenue, has nearly run out, with millions in debt accumulated. The TTF, which had originally been intended for long-term infrastructure planning when it was created in the 1980's, has instead been used mostly for short-term repairs and patchwork projects.
Any money generated from tolls and the gas tax would be funneled into paying off debt that the TTF has incurred over the years.
Transit advocates at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign compare the lopsided number of NJ Transit fares to the state's gas tax, which has remained unchanged since 1988 and is one of the lowest in the country.
“The transportation-funding structure in New Jersey is broken and transit riders alone should not be responsible for fixing it,” said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, told NJ Spotlight.
“This proposed 9 percent fare hike would be the eighth time fares were raised for New Jersey Transit riders since 1988, the year the state's gas tax — the second lowest in the nation — was last increased," Vanterpool said.
"Transit riders alone should not be responsible for fixing the state's broken Transportation Trust Fund. Since 2002, there have been four fare increases," Janna Chernetz, a senior NJ analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, told NJ.com.
"Meanwhile, a key source of revenue to replenish the TTF, the gas tax, has not been increased in 27 years. NJ's transportation funding structure is unsustainable and broken. It needs a solution now."
During his 2016 state budget address, Christie did not touch upon the Transportation Trust Fund issue.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox, along with many Democrat legislators, have pushed for an increase to the gas tax, saying that it would be the only option that could provide the more than $1.6 billion needed to keep the TTF afloat.
But some legislators, including most of the Republicans, have been hesitant to support any increase to the gas tax. Still, some Republican legislators have said they would support a gas tax increase in return for an elimination of the state's estate tax.
Specifically, funding would go from $1.4 billion in 2015 to $1.293 billion in 2016.
The last time NJ Transit found itself in a similar situation was in 1981, which lead to price increases of an average 50%, as well as cuts to services.
Money would also have to go to the cost of settling expired contracts with the 20 unions in NJ Transit. Out of the 11,000 employees in the organization, around 9,000 of them fall within these 20 unions.
The last fare increase for NJ Transit was made in May, 2010, much to the dismay of commuters. With a fare increase of 22%, the result was an extra $11.5 million in annual revenue, with another $13.9 million saved through a 4% reduction in services.
The move back then was to close a $300 million budget gap that NJ Transit was facing at the time.
Advocates such as Les Wolff, a director at the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, proposed the hike to be phased out over the next several years.
"Remember, the PATH planned a $1 fare increase, but did it a quarter at a time," David Peter Alan of the Lackawanna Commuter Coalition told NJ Advance Media, relating it to a proposed annual 3% increase for NJ Transit.
Other advocacy groups in New Jersey, such as the NJ Sierra Club, have been less supportive of the increases.
"Commuters in NJ keep paying more for less service. Higher fares and worse service and delays – this is no way to run a transit system," the Sierra Club's Jeff Tittel told NJ Advance Media.
"The Christie administration is destroying one best transit systems in the country."