Much has been made of the travails of public transit our friends across the Hudson are facing — but every NJ Transit rider knows that a similar crisis, long in the making, has now reached a breaking point here, too.
The state of NJ Transit has an obvious cause: when a service that hundreds of thousands of Jersey residents rely on every day is subject to the push and pull of the political process, commuters lose out. Under former Gov. Chris Christie, NJ Transit went from being a model transit agency to a cautionary tale of disinvestment and neglect. But even with the state under new leadership, NJ Transit fares no better: it has become a proxy in the debate over New Jersey’s budget surplus and whether to implement a millionaires’ tax.
Despite a $138 million budget hole at NJ Transit, this year’s budget only offers the agency a scant 1.6 percent increase — actually lower than many Christie budgets. This forces the agency to continue transferring money from their capital budget (which pays for things like new buses and railcars, system expansions, and station upgrades) to cover operations shortfalls. In fact, those transfers hit an all-time high of over a half-billion dollars under Gov. Phil Murphy’s first state budget.
The result is that the funding the agency is set to receive is little changed from the worst of the Christie years, despite a surplus and everyone’s insistence that transit is a priority. Once again, ambitious projects like the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and the Gateway tunnel get pushed off.
There are many reasons funding for transit gets derailed, from ostensibly important governmental tasks like balancing budgets and allocating scarce resources to other policy priorities, to more pernicious forces, like ideological recalcitrance and internecine power struggles. In any case, however, the end result is the same: commuters get hosed.
NJ Transit needs its own reliable, progressive funding sources, and those sources need to be protected from political machinations. No governor has taken strides in that direction, but ensuring NJ Transit has its own funding would mean that the agency can count on revenue to use for capital and operations and can budget accordingly. That means both launching long-delayed repair and expansion projects and being able to plan long-term with the confidence of multi-year budget security. After all, budgets grow: NJ Transit estimates a 5.6 percent increase in operations costs next year.
Of course, all too often one person’s revenue source is another person’s fare hike. It’s true that the most common funding source for any transit agency is customer fares, but after punishing fare hikes that far outpaced inflation —but did not outpace the rapid decline in service quality during Christie’s tenure — every commuter knows they’re paying more and more for less and less. Besides, passenger revenue, which fluctuates every year, already comprises almost half the agency’s operating budget—much higher than the one-third at comparable agencies.
So how can we find new ways to fund public transit? A few ideas—some old, some new — offer hope that Trenton can put NJ Transit on a more sustainable path.
For starters, land around rail and major bus hubs has long been valuable to developers, who build desirable transit-adjacent retail complexes and luxury condos. But transit is only desirable if it’s reliable — and that takes money. If developers can charge renters and buyers a premium to live near stations, they should pay into NJ Transit in return. The fairest way to make sure everyone benefits is for the legislature to explore different ways to implement “value capture” for developments built right next to transit.
Local economies benefit when transit works, but there are more direct ways of working with the business community as well: NJ Transit should build better partnerships with corporations, exploring public-private partnerships like expanded opportunities for advertising revenue, station co-naming rights, right-of-way and air rights leases, and commuting partnerships with employers.
With the transportation sector now the single largest contributor to climate change in the country, New Jersey is part of an emerging multi-state agreement to reduce transportation’s share of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), it would not only reduce pollution, it would also raise billions in new revenue across the multi-state region. Revenues from TCI should go directly to NJ Transit: the best way to create a virtuous cycle out of new money is to ensure it goes to improving transit, especially in low-income communities that rely on our buses and trains for access to good jobs and education.
While it may be too late for these new revenue sources to be a part of this year’s budget negotiations, it could be worse: this year the MTA went to Albany, hat in hand, for $60 billion in transit upgrades. If nothing else, New Jersey commuters should be glad that NJ Transit’s funding needs pale in comparison.
Nick Sifuentes is the executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign.