Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday morning that he would not hike fares for bus and rail riders at New Jersey Transit for the coming fiscal year, which runs July 1 to June 30, 2021.
The prospect of a fare increase was feared for several months, with onlookers pointing to a growing deficit in the statewide mass transit agency, and an ever-increasing need to plug holes in the budget.
As of December, that deficit clocked in at roughly $86 million, according to Janet Chernetz, executive director at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and a recent pick to sit on NJ Transit’s board of directors. Fares alone make up for roughly half of the agency’s budget, she added.
Both the Murphy administration and legislative leadership have promised to avoid raising fares and instead come up with funding elsewhere in the budget.
A fare increase – done twice under Murphy’s predecessor Republican Gov. Chris Christie – would be an unpopular move for users of an agency hounded by delays and cancellations on their trains and buses, which many times show up at the stations overcrowded beyond capacity. The governor has frequently faulted Christie for the agency’s current condition.
“Our transit system exists to get you reliably to and from work and school, and it exists to make your lives smoother, not to further burden you,” Murphy said at a press conference Tuesday morning at the New Jersey Transit maintenance facility in Kearny.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, put together a legislative committee in the fall that would be tasked with, among other things, finding a dedicated and recurring source of funding for the beleaguered agency.
“NJ Transit’s record of service cancellations, delays and breakdowns is inexcusable, its long-term planning is non-existent, and it is already laying the groundwork for a fare hike next summer,” Sweeney said when forming the committee.
The Senate President said he wants to unveil new funding proposals for the agency before the governor presents his budget address in March.
But he and other legislative leaders butted heads with the Murphy administration last summer over how many state dollars should go toward NJ Transit, with lawmakers pushing for the agency to accept more state dollars than the administration initially wanted.
Murphy ultimately signed a budget that included $50 million for the agency on top of the $25 million net increase initially proposed last March.
The agency has fallen under intense fire for the practice of raiding its capital budget –– which is supposed to be used for upgrades and expansions – in order to keep the lights on with the agency. As a result, much of NJ Transit’s facilities fell into disrepair over the past decade.
And although Murphy has been highly critical of that modus operandi which prevailed under the Christie-era NJ Transit, he has nonetheless continued the practice during his first two years in office, diverting hundreds of millions of dollars away from long term projects.