Mar
05

A looming fare hike highlights NJ Transit’s problems

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Although this site is largely focused on New York City transit, it’s hard to ignore New Jersey’s impact on the region. I don’t quite follow the daily ins and outs of New Jersey’s transportation scene as I do New York’s as that is a frustratingly Sisyphean, but as the state with the fifth greatest number of unlinked transit trips in the nation — and one that feeds directly into New York City — we can’t just ignore it under a more transit-friendly administration is in place. These days, we’re talking fare hikes.

The scandal of the week from the Garden State involves Exxon. The state had sued for over $8 billion in environmental damages, and the suit was headed to a damages determination when Gov. Chris Christie opted to settle for $225 million, cents on the dollars. From news stories to Op-Ed columns, The Times has covered this environmental and taxpayer scandal closely since breaking the story last week, and it’s worth paying attention here as it reverberates from a local to a national level. But that’s hardly the only story at play.

Yet again, New Jersey Transit is gearing up to raise its fares, and the hike — designed to cover an operating budget gap — could be by as much as 25 percent. Larry Higgs had the story:

NJ Transit commuters should brace themselves for possible fare hikes of 25 percent or more in addition to service cuts, a transit advocate warns, as the agency struggles to close an $80 million budget gap.

And while NJ Transit officials insist a fare increase would be lower than 2010’s fare hike and is on the table only as a “last resort,” the last time the agency faced an $80 million budget gap, in 1981, it jacked fares by 50 percent over three years and introduced significant service cutbacks. “It’s a safe assumption it will be greater than 25 percent by the amount of revenue needed to fill the hole,” said Veronica Vanterpool, Tri-State Transportation Campaign executive director. “The funding structure for NJ Transit is broken. What we need is a new funding structure.”

Other factors that could affect a fare increase include the cost to settle expired contracts with 20 unions, which make up more than 9,000 of NJ Transit’s 11,000 employees. Many of those contracts expired five and six years ago. However, any fare increase under consideration will include those contract costs, said Nancy Snyder, an NJ Transit spokeswoman. “We recognize the 2010 fare adjustment was a serious burden on customers,” Snyder said. “We would not repeat that level of adjustment, which was required because of years of refusing to make tough choices including retraining costs and adjusting fares to meet needs.”

New Jersey Transit, as we know, hasn’t been a paragon of a well-run transit agency. Their utter lack of emergency flood preparedness cost them a few hundred million dollars in damage due to Hurricane Sandy, and Gov. Christie’s decision to kill ARC without a potential replacement has saddled the agency with the same operations challenges it has faced for decades. The sources of the $80 million gap, as others have noted, are numerous and include raising costs and increased spending on labor. The fare hikes to cover this gap will be steep.

Meanwhile, it’s worthy pondering how and why New Jersey’s drivers get off so easily. Even as hundreds of millions of transit riders pass through the Garden State’s transit network, drivers haven’t seen a corresponding increase in the gas tax in 25 years. The imbalance affects us all as it leads to more cars on the road and less money to maintain or even expand the transit network. It’s a strange and uncomfortable situation that isn’t going to change any time soon.



Categories : New Jersey Transit

50 Responses to “A looming fare hike highlights NJ Transit’s problems”

  1. Duke says:

    New Jersey’s gas tax, which is the second-lowest in the nation, is a sacred cow. It has become a matter of state pride that gas is significantly cheaper there than in NY or PA. And that you cannot pump it yourself (another absurdity). Given that, good luck touching it.

    Now, to be fair, New Jersey does also have the lowest per capita state highway mileage of any state, since A LOT of road maintenance is left up to the counties. So they don’t need as much gas tax revenue as other states might. But their highway trust fund is still broke – and this, by the way, is why ARC was cancelled. The state money which was dedicated to ARC got cannibalized to temporarily plug holes in the highway budget.

    As for NJ transit, I doubt the fare hike will be averted by some other revenue stream materializing, simply because it is a question of blame shifting. Christie promised he wouldn’t raise taxes and isn’t about to take the fall for breaking that promise. But if NJ Transit has a massive fare hike, well then that’s their fault, not his, and Christie gets to go to the Iowa caucus bragging about how he balanced the budget without raising taxes. This is what happens when your governor is more concerned with his future political career than with his current job.

    • Webster says:

      Indeed! It is interesting to note that, at $7.26 in 1990, a one-way ticket from New Brunswick to NY Penn would have been slightly cheaper than today’s fare, adjusted for inflation ($12.98 in 1990, $13.00 in 2015)

      It kind of puts into perspective just how little the gas tax has kept up with inflation…

      • Eric F says:

        It’s probably the monthly pass cost that is of greatest interest to the mass of commuters. Not sure if there was a greater or lesser increase in the cost of passes.

  2. Scott E says:

    Perhaps, in light of other looming transportation possibilities in the region, this is NJT’s way of turning their pockets inside-out and pleading “Please, don’t give us PATH!”

  3. Eric F says:

    This piece is propaganda, and phoned in propaganda at that. In no particular order:

    NJT’s last fare increase was the first one in over 10 years. It’s now been 6 years since a far increase. Compare to MTA.

    Drivers pay gas taxes and TOLLS. There are large and ever-increasing tolls for intra-state travel. Gas taxes are only one piece of the cost picture for an NJ driver. Those who drive to NY also pay the serially raised and outrageous Hudson-crossing tolls. You know this quite well.

    NJ drivers have said toll revenue subsidize transit users.

    The increased costs necessitating the fare increases are salary, pension and health costs for NJT employees. Any thoughts on how to address that besides confiscating the income of guys driving to work in New Brunswick in the dark in January in their Altimas?

    If you are complaining about the NJT having budget issues, marrying it to an ARC project is a very odd prescription for that problem.

    The Exxon suit settlement is yet another “simulated scandal”. You know nothing of the details as to whether the settlement is prudent or not and it has nothing to do with transit whatsoever. The same media that was utterly taken by surprise when Sheldon Silver was hauled away in handcuffs has been obsessed with hanging something on Christie. Here’s the Christie scandal: He’s a Republican.

    • VLM says:

      You got one thing right here, at least, Eric! Your comment is indeed phoned-in propaganda, especially if you believe this clap-trap about NJ tolls being sufficient enough to fund road maintenance and subsidize transit at the same time. The broke TTF would tell you otherwise. But, please, never change your comments. They’re so entertaining.

      • Eric F says:

        NJ drivers pay a gas tax and pay tolls. To say that they have some sort of free ride because only one of those cost aspects has recently doubled is slanted, right?

        Excess toll revenue and all gas tax revenue gets sent to the TTF. That the TTF is broke is a symptom of poor and cynical planning.

        By the way, if I was a regular everyday NJ driver, I’d have no problem with a higher tax. Today’s episode is just a throw a bunch of darts at Christie piece.

        • VLM says:

          And what exactly is wrong with a “throw darts at Christie piece” other than that it offends your delicate sensibilities? Christie is the governor of a state with massive amounts of transit usage, and he has been flat-out terrible on transit due to his national aspirations. If anything, he’s gotten more of a pass on this than he ever deserved.

          • Nyland8 says:

            FAR more of a pass than he ever deserved. The fact is, Christie has been catastrophically bad, and should have been politically vulnerable in his last election, on both commuting tolls and mass transit. Unless you have a limo picking you up and dropping you off, commuting in New Jersey is a huge chink in Christie’s armor. If his political opponents had been well advised, they should have jammed a broadsword into Christie’s chink and torn it open with all the strength they have. His bridge-gate scandal was nothing, compared to stopping the ARC, and the Frankenstorm mass transit damage of hurricane Sandy. And the catastrophe of the post-Super Bowl mass-transit mess was played nationally, and should be revisited every time Christie faces reporters.

            Moreover, we all know that, at least on these SAS threads, it’s got nothing to do with his political party affiliation. Most people here think Cuomo sucks, too! It isn’t bad enough that Washington DC thinks mass-transit and infrastructure spending is a third rail they refuse to touch, but the two Governors of the most transit dependent states in the nation don’t seem to get it either. Not only is the infrastructure crumbling around us, but the cost of repair and replacement goes up every day they kick that can down the road. And transit fare, and bridge and road toll increases, will not solve the problem. They’ll only further crush the middle class, and send growth and jobs elsewhere in the country.

            However distasteful hearing it is to most folks, some dedicated tax-based funding source is the only solution.

            We can pay them now, or we can pay them later, but we’re going to pay them – and the later we do, the more disruptive and expensive it’s going to be.

        • Bolwerk says:

          It’s unlikely anybody here is as nakedly partisan as you. You realize that, right?

          • Eric F says:

            Not taking the position that the fat guy with presidential ambitions is not the greatest threat to humanity since Sharknado does not make me nakedly partisan.

            • Bolwerk says:

              No, but crude caricatures of other people’s opinions like that are pretty nakedly partisan, especially given how differently you react to criticism of almost the same person in another state who happens to be in a different party.

              I don’t care that you’re nakedly partisan, but you don’t need to project it onto everyone else.

        • lawhawk says:

          New Jersey drivers indeed pay tolls – for the GSP and Turnpike. Other roads are not tolled. Bridges/tunnels in and out of the state are tolled, so how is that different than the tolling of certain bridges in NYC proper, or even the tolling of the NYS Thruway (since we are talking state versus state).

          Not every NJ resident uses the Turnpike or Parkway. Many of the roads are in poor shape (including the Parkway and Turnpike). The Parkway Authority and Turnpike Authority were consolidated for a potential cost savings.

          Next step? Roll it in to the state DOT and get rid of the authorities all together. Duplicate service/administration.

          But that’s not truly the point here. The point is that NJ disproportionately hits up commuters of buses and rails. The state hiked tolls in 2008 and 2012. But many state drivers don’t hit the Turnpike or Parkway. Consider those who come in to the state via 78 or 80. Those are untolled (78 until the Turnpike Extension in Newark) – 80 until the GWB. Those are some of the most heavily traveled roads in the region. Yet they don’t get tolled, so those drivers are heavily subsidized by everyone else.

          The gas tax is the one thing that NJ attempts to keep cheaper than all of the surrounding states, but even a 10 cent hike would mean that NJ is still substantially cheaper than surrounding states.

          The fare hikes run counter to the need to maximize transit options in the state – that the hikes coupled with reductions in service means more people hit the roads where possible, increasing traffic, congestion, pollution, and damage to said roads from use.

    • Duke says:

      The turnpike and parkway are run by a separate agency from the state DOT and their tolls fund only those roads.

      And while it is true that Port Authority tolls subsidize PATH, the massive increases in recent years are mostly attributable to paying for cost overruns in rebuilding the World Trade Center.

      • Eric F says:

        The NTPK Authority provides money to the transportation trust fund in NJ. Effectively, NJTpk drivers are overcharged and excess funds are sent to the TTF. Look it up.

        • BrooklynBus says:

          And the Turnpike Authority has so much funding that they can’t even afford to maintain the Turnpike. What happened yesterday? Something like a hundred cars had flats and or rim damage because they couldn’t stop on time to avoid severe potholes after the recent freezing and thawing. Luckilly there were no accidents or anyone etting killed.

          • Eric F says:

            I didn’t see that story, sounds awful. I think it’s just hard to keep up with the maintenance this time of year. I have found that generally the TPK and GSP are light years better maintained than the other highways in the region. The one glaring exception is the extension into Jersey City and that little bit of 78 owned by the TPK leading to the extension which are not well surfaced at all.

          • lop says:

            http://www.northjersey.com/new.....-1.1282034

            This?

            Fifteen is something like a hundred I guess.

    • Low Headways says:

      “drivers have said toll revenue subsidize transit users.”

      Drivers also say there’s a “war on cars,” and that EVERYONE drives, and that their taxes are too high, and that the traffic is always bad, and there’s never enough parking.

      That doesn’t mean it’s true, nor that we should listen to them.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Toll revenue does subsidize transit. But people who obsess with that fact usually ignore how transit-dependent cities’ citizens and businesses pay income taxes that pay for roads and services for people who live in auto-centric places. We don’t only have to pay for our own roads, but we have to pay for roads in the suburbs and in West Virginia and wherever else.

        • Eric F says:

          And the massive warehousing in Cranbury/Linden generates toll and gas tax money and higher diesel tax money that subsidizes transit users.

  4. anon_coward says:

    i thought property taxes pay for most state and local roads?

  5. JJJJ says:

    The big problem is that the Democrats are garbage at messaging. A fare hike is a tax hike, and Christie should be roasted for it.

    The headlines should read “Christie looking at 25% tax hike for jersey commuters”

    Also, you know where one could find 10 years worth of $80m to fill a budget gap?

    In the Exxon settlement.

    And BTW, the 2010 fare hike was a 50% increase for off peak commuters.

  6. tacony says:

    the state with the fifth greatest number of unlinked transit trips in the nation

    Better stat: NJ has the 2nd highest proportion of transit commuters in the US, after New York State. Despite its reputation has a car-centric place, New Jerseyans are more likely to rely on transit to get to work than residents of any other state than New York. That’s a big deal.

    NJ’s also #3, behind New York and Massachusetts, in percentage of households without cars. It’s a lot of people, all the more interesting in that it’s a relatively wealthy state overall, as in many places car ownership is correlated with income.

    But there’s also this bizarre, damaging idea among some in political and business circles in NJ, that transit is a means for getting into NYC, while travel within NJ should be done by car, therefore prioritizing driving is stimulating business development in NJ, while transit projects simply flow to either wealthy NYC commuters (who they’d rather have driving to work within NJ anyway) or are a social service for the urban underclass.

    It’s sad because Hudson County over the past 2 decades is otherwise such a massive success story in building what is really the fastest growing “transit-oriented” region in the NYC area.

    At the same time, NJ Transit has made a lot of terrible choices over the past 5 years with regard to revenue that I don’t understand. Why remove off-peak discounts? Was this just politically easier than raising peak fares more? Obviously you want to charge more during peak hours because there is a non-zero percentage of passengers who will shift to non-peak hours to pay less, filling the less full trains and providing space on the packed rush hour trains. NJT rail fares are already higher than MNR and LIRR for equivalent distances. More hikes are just going to cut further into NJ’ians take home incomes.

    • Eric F says:

      “But there’s also this bizarre, damaging idea among some in political and business circles in NJ, that transit is a means for getting into NYC, while travel within NJ should be done by car…”

      Not sure that’s borne out at all. The two major lines built in NJ by NJ Transit are both light rail lines connecting waterfront areas within NJ to NJ job centers. The River Line connect the Delaware River water front with Camden, and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail connects the cities within the Hudson County section of the Hudson Riverfront.

      That said, the obvious market for transit will be to dense city centers and the most crying need NJ has is for an ARC or Son of Arc or ARCish, etc.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Sure, but Newark is a dense city center too, and yet its transit mode share as a job center is terrible.

        • adirondacker12800 says:

          Newark’s job center is at the airport with all those lovely highways and parking lots.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Downtown Newark had a bit over 50,000 workers in 2000 (of whom only 26% took transit); the airport has 20,000.

            • adirondacker12800 says:

              Lots of things have changed in 15 years.

              • Joe Steindam says:

                Indeed much has changed in Newark in 15 years, including a nascent downtown revival, led by the relocation of Panasonic and the addition of Prudential’s new headquarters. Prudential Center has also spurred the creation of some ancillary arena business.

                According to 2011 census data with some known accuracy issues (data from ces.census.gov, it should be considered the lower bound of employment) the census tracts in Newark and Elizabeth that contain the airport and seaport have about 30,000 jobs. Downtown Newark has about 70,000 jobs.

  7. Rob says:

    One cost driver that I have noted is that nj seems to junk and replace its rail equipment a lot sooner than other agencies [not to mention that which they wreck by flooding]. Railcars are often kept in svc 40 or 50 yrs or more [e.g. look at patco], but nj has replaced many after 20.

    • JJJ says:

      I think hours and miles are more indicative than time.

    • lawhawk says:

      That’s simply not true. Here’s a rundown of the NJ Transit rolling stock.

      On the NEC and some of the other lines that run to Southern NJ, you’ll still find the older cars. That includes cars originally built in the 1970s that are still in use today (having been reconditioned in the early 1990s).

      And right now, the only way you can get increased capacity into NYP via NEC is buying more bilevel cars and retiring the existing single level Comet cars since there’s no way to shoehorn additional trains per hour into Penn Station (excluding through-running, which is still operationally impossible).

  8. Kevin says:

    Not taking sides, but I’m gonna do some napkin mathematics to get a ballpark idea of what kind of money the gas tax brings in.

    NJ State tax: $0.145/gal.
    Approximate number of cars: 5.5 million.
    Gallons per week: 10.
    Weeks per year: 52.

    ~$400 million.
    A decent chunk of change. I would think adding $0.03/gal would be pretty much imperceptible at the pump, and raise $80 million per year. And still keep it in the bottom 5 gas tax rated states.

  9. Phantom says:

    The NJ gas tax is an attraction to NY PA and other drivers who pass through NJ.

    There are many of us.

    And we all make our gas purchases in NJ whenever possible.

    Add the disproportionate out of state gas purchasesto the tax calculations.

    • Alon Levy says:

      That’s why the EU has a minimum fuel tax – to prevent these sorts of races to the bottom, where member states would undertax things to attract people from over the border.

      • adirondacker12800 says:

        Unless you have some reason to be in New Jersey, if you have to pay a toll, you lose money on the proposition. Even if you don’t it burns gas to get to New Jersey.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Rockland and Orange Counties?

          • adirondacker12800 says:

            GasBuddy.com says gas costs 35 cents a gallon more in New York than in New Jersey. 5 bucks on a tank of gas and you have to burn half a gallon of gas to do that so you are only saving $3.75. And wasting time. If you are going down to Paramus to go to Ikea anyway, it makes sense to fill up on Route 17. But to do it regularly? Nah.

            • lawhawk says:

              Why would you have to go all the way to Paramus to get gas when you can stop in Ramsey or Mahwah on Rt 17 or Franklin Turnpike from Rockland County? Orange County is a wee bit further away, but folks in counties adjacent to NJ can make substantial savings by coming into NJ to get their gas.

              Folks who drive regularly will make the trip because of the cost savings over time (doing the math would show that if you’re driving more than 10-30 miles or so to get the gas depending on your MPG, you’d lose your savings to going the extra distance).

              Suffern NY residents, Monsey, and areas along Rt. 202 will come down to Ramsey or Mahwah to get NJ gas. See it all the time. Used to do it too – especially when doing the commute to NYC via NJT at Suffern.

              Or, head down to Bucks County PA. You’ll see a steady stream of PA drivers who’ll come into NJ to get gas. Or out in Sussex County and Delaware Water Gap area.

              • Phantom says:

                I live in Brooklyn, so would never travel to NJ only to buy gas.

                But I travel often to NJ or PA. And I time it so that whenever possible I buy gas in NJ

                I haven’t purchased gas in NY in over a year.

                Very many NYC residents do this. I don’t feel guilty – the predatory NYC and NYS regimes get way too much of my money as it is.

              • lop says:

                http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy...../vm202.cfm
                VMT by state is in the excel download.

                http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pe.....alpd_a.htm

                Motor gasoline sales by state.

                http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/m...../enote.pdf

                Says it’s supposed to include volume only for local sale, so fuel sold in NJ to an interstate distributor is supposed to be excluded.

                So in 2010, VMT in NYS was ~ 131 billion, in NJ ~73 billion. Fuel sales were 5.47 billion gallons in NY, 4.21 billion gallons in NJ. If all fuel was burned in the state it was bought in, and no other fuel was burned in each state, then NJ would have a fleet fuel efficiency of not much more than 17 mpg, and in NY almost 24 mpg. In PA almost 21 mpg.

                So there does seem to be a significant amount of gas purchased in NJ, but burned elsewhere.

                Two other outliers are DC at 49 and RI at 16.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Look where the gas stations are on Google Maps. The only place in the entire region where that seems it could be more than an outlier is a bit of Rockland near Spring Valley.

            Otherwise one side, or both sides, of the border is so sparsely populated it doesn’t make sense. Then, where there are people on either side of the border, the border appears tolled into both NY and PA.

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