Public hearings on a proposed 25% fare hike and service cuts for NJ Transit wrapped up over the weekend. After hundreds testified on Thursday, hundreds more showed up at Friday night and Saturday hearings to make clear that the plan would cause severe economic harm. In Camden, customer-service representative Nancy Ingling, a paratransit rider, said higher fares would put her ability to get to work at risk. In Morristown, where 200 riders attended, Morris County Freeholder Director Gene Feyl warned that the planned cuts would make it hard for people to get to the county’s social service agencies. There were similar stories in Hackensack, Long Branch, and elsewhere.
Riders have turned out in a way that wasn’t seen when transit fares were increased in 2007 and 2005. And opinion writers are pointing out the inequity of Gov. Christie’s refusal to increase the gas tax or tolls while readying a huge fare hike. The Bergen Record‘s commuter columnist, John “Road Warrior” Cichowski says the governor’s transportation proposals aren’t really spreading the pain:
Yes, pain must be balanced at every step of the ladder — from affluent Mendham to struggling Paterson — but lost bus lines and monthly $50 to $75 fare increases mean much more pain for those on the bottom rungs than they do for those at the middle and the top… Regardless of the current recession, 20-year projections suggest that ridership to New York alone will easily double, and the ridership needs within the state aren’t far behind. Anything that takes people out of trains and puts them in cars is a long-range mistake.
Record editorial page editor Alfred P. Doblin says he’s a fan of Gov. Christie and thinks the governor is “on to something in his campaign to shrink the size of government.” But even he says that:
A 25 percent rate increase is a user tax, governor. You call it like it is on everything else; do the same with commuters… A $750 or more annual increase in commuting costs, plus longer commutes, aren’t budgetary fixes for many people. They are being thrown under the buses and trains they can no longer afford to ride. These people aren’t whining; they are hurting. Someone should listen to them.
NJ Transit executive director Jim Weinstein told reporters that the proposed fare hikes and service cuts will likely be reduced and that testimony had shown that the plan would hurt the elderly and disabled. Weinstein admitted that a 25% fare increase was an “extraordinary burden” but that there were few other options because of a $300 million deficit the agency faces next year. “[The adjustments NJ Transit can make are] not going to be huge changes, because we don’t have a lot of places to turn,” he told CBS.
There’s really only one place: Governor Christie and the State Legislature.