NJ Transit Ridership Up Across the Board

Hudson-Bergen Light Rail saw twice as many passengers as Newark and four times that of RiverLine. | Photo: New York Post

Hudson-Bergen Light Rail saw twice as many passengers as Newark and four times that of RiverLine. | Photo: New York Post

New Jersey Transit recently opened its committee meetings to the public, allowing riders greater insight into the agency’s operations and performance stats. Ridership data made available at the August Customer Service Committee meeting has revealed some interesting usage trends across NJ Transit’s operations, highlighting customer needs in several areas.

The most encouraging insight gained from the committee’s report is that total June 2014 ridership across all three modes increased by 4.8 percent compared to June 2013, while statewide vehicle miles traveled (VMT) decreased and gas prices continued to soar. Rail ridership was up 7.3 percent, and the HBLR showed tremendous gains with a 6.9 percent increase in May and 7.4 percent in June, compared to 2013.

With statewide transit ridership increasing at such an encouraging rate, the state would be wise to prioritize a sustainable funding source for transportation projects. Thankfully it seems there is growing momentum to help push this issue in the right direction, though with NJ Transit already dependent on borrowing against its own capital funds to cover growing operating costs, a solution to the state’s transportation funding crisis can’t come soon enough.

Ridership stats across NJ Transit’s three transit modes allowed us to identify three specific transportation infrastructure projects that, if prioritized, could significantly improve and expand existing service for NJ Transit customers.

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For Port Authority Transparency, the Ball Is in New Jersey’s Court

port-authority-logoNothing has so clearly highlighted the need for government transparency as the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal and the subsequent political fallout. Though New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chair of the special committee to investigate the PANYNJ, continues to probe for answers, the issue of accountability and transparency seems fated to remain well after the “Bridgegate” scandal is resolved.

That is, unless legislation is passed to mandate that the bi-state agency is subject to both the New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

The New York State Legislature has already taken this step, and a bill subjecting the Port Authority to New York’s FOIL law is awaiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature.

But similar efforts in New Jersey have been slow to get out of the starting gate. While a Senate bill to ensure the Port Authority was accountable to New Jersey’s OPRA law passed the full Senate this past June, its Assembly counterpart has yet to move in the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee.

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New Jersey’s Bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund: Is Action Finally Underway?

The Kingsland Avenue Bridge in Lyndhurst was the backdrop for Senate President Stephen Sweeney's announcement of his TTF funding tour. | Photo: Myles Ma for NJ.com

The Kingsland Avenue Bridge in Lyndhurst was the backdrop for Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s announcement of his TTF funding tour. | Photo: Myles Ma for NJ.com

The New Jersey State Assembly will “spend the coming months hosting hearings on the problems and concerns surrounding our bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) and what it will take to meet our transportation needs,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto announced last week via an op-ed in The Record.  But this is not going to be a “feel-good process done for appearances sakes,” said Speaker Prieto. “Nothing about our current state of transportation affairs should make anyone feel good.”

The problems surrounding the bankrupt TTF should be obvious enough to state legislators. Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Senator Paul Sarlo recently announced a tour of the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure that aims to draw Governor Christie’s attention to the need to resolve the funding crisis—as though the governor might somehow be unaware of that need. The real problem is that the political will required to address the issue is conspicuously lacking, even while the solutions for funding transportation infrastructure seem to be staring the legislature—and the governor—square in the face.
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Premature, or Too Little Too Late? Port Authority Reallocates $90 Million for “Obsolete” Bus Terminal

Port Authority Bus Terminal | Photo: Allix Rogers/Flickr (via WNYC)

Port Authority Bus Terminal | Photo: Allix Rogers/flickr via WNYC

Trans-Hudson bus commuters received some promising news about the outdated Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT) Wednesday: the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution officially reallocating $90 million from its current 10-year Capital Program to a (nonspecific) plan for improvements under the working title “Quality of Commute.” A detailed plan on how the Port Authority will spend that money is slated to be presented at the September 17 Board meeting.

Port Authority Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Scott Rechler called the PABT “obsolete in every way you can imagine” and expressed concern that none of the commissioners had made the PABT a top priority while the most recent 10- year capital program was being developed.

“I was a little dismayed that we spent two years going through this capital plan and getting input from all the commissioners who were taking feedback from the community and it didn’t reach that level, and I’m not exactly sure why,” Rechler said at Wednesday’s meeting.

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A New Port Authority Bus Terminal May Be Closer Than We Thought

Riders waiting to board buses at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. | Photo: The Record

Riders waiting to board buses at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. | Photo: The Record

Back in February, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) officials said it was “premature” to put any spending for the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT) in the capital program, and that nothing would be done regarding building a new bus garage until a $5.5 million study was complete.

But it seems like the Authority is revisiting this stance given new financial optimism and pressure from advocates and elected officials.

A few weeks ago, PANYNJ Commissioners Ken Lipper and Jeffrey Lynford of New York and David Steiner of New Jersey indicated that due to “several recent positive financial developments for the agency,” a new terminal “could and should be added” to the 10-year, $27.6 billion capital plan adopted in February. This news comes in response to New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg’s testimony last month during the monthly meeting of the Port Authority Board of Directors.

The growing number of public complaints from New Jersey Transit commuters who use the PABT caught the attention of Assemblymembers Gordon Johnson and Senator Loretta Weinberg, who held a hearing on June 11 in Teaneck specifically to discuss concerns regarding the PABT. “We wanted to make sure in a most public way that NJ Transit and PANYNJ are well aware of the problems,” Weinberg said. “We’ve been hearing from our constituents,” who Weinberg says often must stand for more than an hour at a gate waiting to board a bus.

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Veto Threat Stops New Jersey Democrats from Pursuing Gas Tax Increase, but Not Other Tax Increases

Governor Christie has promised to veto any tax increase, which has evidently been enough to prevent Democrats from even trying to raise the gas tax.

New Jersey Democrats tried and failed to pass a “millionaires tax” despite Governor Chris Christie’s promise to veto any tax increases. So why hasn’t there been a serious attempt to raise the gas tax?

New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee Chair John Wisniewski, a proponent of raising the state’s gas tax, stated earlier this year that “until the governor shows a willingness to tackle the [transportation funding] problem it would be quixotic for Democrats to propose a tax that would face not only the governor’s veto, but his wrath as well.”

It’s a rational argument — why try when failure is certain? But the threat of the governor’s veto hasn’t stopped New Jersey Democrats from trying to advance other tax increases.

Governor Chris Christie has been very vocal about his determination to veto any tax increase that is sent to him, so it came as no surprise when he vetoed a tax increase on millionaires before signing the $32.5 billion state budget this week. What’s surprising is that legislators sent them to the governor anyway. In fact, Democrats in the legislature have tried on several occasions to pass a “millionaires tax” despite Christie’s inevitable veto.

So why have legislators stayed away from seeking a much-needed gas tax increase? It’s not as if legislators don’t realize the state has a transportation funding crisis.

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NJ Transit Chief: “No Service Cuts Or Fare Increases”

NJ Transit’s new Executive Director Ronnie Hakim has gotten off on the right foot by protecting bus and train riders from service cuts and fare hikes. In response to a Tri-State inquiry concerning the proposed $15 million cut to NJ Transit’s operating budget included in Governor Christie’s budget, Executive Director Hakim assured advocates that there [...]

Insult to Injury: Governor Christie’s Cuts Would Reduce Subsidy for Already-Underfunded NJ Transit

NJ Transit says there won't be any fare increases if Governor Christie's subsidy cut is approved. What riders don't know is if there will be any service cuts. | Photo: AP

NJ Transit says there won’t be any fare increases if the subsidy cut is approved. What riders don’t know is if there will be any service cuts. | Photo: AP

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced several budget cuts Wednesday aimed at plugging the Garden State’s $807 million budget deficit. Among the cuts was a $14.8 million cut to the subsidy the state provides to New Jersey Transit.

This $14.8 million represents just under 1 percent of NJT’s $1.9 billion operating budget, but it’s an operating budget that’s already substantially underfunded. Over the past three years, $1.16 billion ($363 million in FY2012, $397 million in FY2013 and $397 million in FY2014) has been transferred from NJT’s capital fund to meet the agency’s operating needs. That’s nothing to sneeze at: $1.16 billion is enough to fund the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail extension, replace the Portal Bridge or make a serious dent in the cost to build the Camden-Glassboro Light Rail project.

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With No Public Input or Environmental Study NJDOT Widens Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension Permanently

New Jersey has once again literally paved the way for another lesson in legal terminology. Sua sponte, which means “of one’s own accord,” seems to accurately describe New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson’s decision to permanently widen the Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension. The NBHCE’s eastbound shoulder, which was originally intended to be a temporary part-time travel [...]

Whither the Discussion on New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund Debt?

nj-gas-tax-shrinkingThe legal term, Res ipsa loquitur, or “the thing speaks for itself,” posits that “one is presumed to be negligent if he/she/it had exclusive control of whatever caused the injury even though there is no specific evidence of an act of negligence, and without negligence the accident would not have happened.”

Under this legal doctrine, one could conclude that Governor Christie has been negligent in regard to New Jersey’s current transportation funding crisis.

New Jersey’s transportation funding strategy has been reliant on debt for some time, but the problem has become especially dire under the current administration. In 1984, Governor Tom Kean created the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) with the intent to not only create a “stable and predictable” funding source for transportation projects, but also to keep that funding sheltered from the annual budget process. Under Governor Kean, 77 percent of transportation funding came from pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) financing, but when Governor Jim Florio took office in 1991, that percentage took a nosedive. This trend continued with each subsequent administration, and debt has become the primary source of funding transportation in New Jersey ever since. Today, under Governor Christie, PAYGO accounts for less than 3 percent of transportation financing.

It’s no wonder the state’s current five-year capital plan will run out of funding a year early. At a recent budget hearing in Trenton, NJDOT Commissioner James Simpson put the 2016 funding gap at $620 million with no funding source identified. A report issued by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services warned that “if the size of the transportation capital program does not increase after 2016, it is possible that recent improvements that have been realized in the condition of the state of transportation infrastructure will be reversed.”

This pressure is further exacerbated by the $692 million funding gap expected in 2017 after the expiration of temporary Turnpike Authority and PANYNJ contributions.

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