Peter Fiorilla, Staff Writer
UNION COUNTY, NJ — On a ninth-floor boardroom at New Jersey Transit Headquarters in Newark, where NJ Transit’s proposed fare hike and service cuts were being publicly discussed, there wasn’t enough room for everyone who wanted a seat. Not even close.
The room’s 60 or so seats were occupied well before the hearing’s start time. Concerned riders then stood against the walls and overflowed into the lobby beyond, where a TV was set up with a live feed of the meeting.
These people came, in large part, to protest NJ Transit’s proposed fare hike and service cuts. The proposal would raise the cost of riding by an average of 9 percent, according to documents handed out by NJ Transit, while service cuts would eliminate the last trains of the evening on the Pascack Valley and Montclair-Boonton lines.
“It’s a shame that we didn’t have a place big enough to hold the hundreds of people that are out here tonight,” said speaker Ray Greaves, chairman of the New Jersey Amalgamated Transit Union State Council, which represents more than 10,000 New Jersey transit workers. “But it’s great to see this room filled to capacity.”
Greaves, who said he was the only member of NJ Transit’s board at the event, added that NJ Transit’s most recent increase was in 2010, when the average fare rose by 25 percent. Train and bus fares have have been raised eight times since the last New Jersey gas tax was added in 1988, according to NJ Transit’s website.
The cumulative burden of these fare increases didn’t sit well with many of the meeting’s dozens of speakers, who argued that the proposal would cripple New Jersey commuters. About 40 minutes into the meeting, most of the three-minute speeches were cheered and supported with loud choruses of “fight the hike!” which is also name of the movement opposing NJ Transit’s current proposals.
“New Jersey Transit commuters already pay the highest fares in the country, and increasing fares will cripple our state’s middle class and working families,” said Greaves. “New Jersey Transit’s hike for train and bus fares will be more expensive in difficult commutes for almost half a million riders. One in 10 New Jersey workers and New Jerseyans simply cannot afford another increase in fares.”
In documents distributed at the hearing, NJ Transit said the proposal would be used to fill a budget gap of $60 million, brought on by budget cuts from the state. The gap had been $100 million, but NJ Transit said it has already shrunk the gap by $40 million by reducing spending on expenses such as fuel and spare parts; however the reductions weren’t enough to close the gap.
This year’s cuts were not the first time in recent memory that New Jersey has slashed NJ Transit’s funding.
“In the last six years, New Jersey Transit has become the universal blood donor for all of the other departments in New Jersey,” said speaker Joseph Clift. “They’ve given up about $300 million in appropriations support, and you know what they’re replacing it with? Your future capital.”
Speakers attributed NJ Transit’s funding problem to two sources: The state Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie, who was the target of more than one speaker’s ire.
“While we all point fingers at New Jersey Transit, we all know who’s really to blame,” said Greaves. “It’s our governor, Chris Christie. His failure to lead; his lack of vision, when it comes to transportation, is horrendous. While the governor gives the house away to corporations, he wants us to pick up the tab.”
“The solution to the fare increase is not in this room, it’s in Trenton,” added Clift. “The Legislature proposes the budget.”
Direct state subsidies from the general fund to NJ Transit have dropped from $309.4 million in 2012, Christie’s third year in office, to $33 million in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, according to the Office of Legislative Services’ website.
The result of these cuts, many speakers said, isn’t just the higher cost of riding, but also a NJ Transit that is less efficient and consumer-friendly. Many people at the podium said that they find NJ Transit workers unhelpful; ticket collectors often refuse to collect tickets on busy rides; and service has declined in recent years. One speaker recommended a boycott of NJ Transit if the fare hike is approved.
“The people should not allow New Jersey Transit to take advantage of their dependency on public transportation,” said JoAnn Sims, who represented People’s Organization for Progress. “The people of New Jersey should go back to traveling by horse and buggy, bicycles, motorcycles, carpooling, go karts, and just using your feet.”
Some speakers suggested that NJ Transit look into dedicated funding outside of the political system, through advertising and other means. Janna Chernetz, a senior New Jersey policy analyst with Tri-State Transportation Campaign and a frequent rider of the Raritan Valley Line, said that when NJ Transit raises fares in response to budget cuts, it’s a short-term solution for a long-term problem.
“The bottom line is that New Jersey’s transportation funding structure is broken,” said Chernetz. “It’s patched together by one-shot gimmicks, debt and funding transfers that would baffle even Sherlock Holmes.”
The proposals for the fare increase and service cuts will be put to a final vote in July and, if implemented, would take effect by Oct. 1, according to the NJ Transit website. However, NJ Transit officials at the hearing in Newark stressed that this was just a proposal, not a done deal.