The Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, Thursday said he wants to be able to propose a new, “dedicated source of funding” for NJ Transit before Gov. Phil Murphy introduces his budget in March.
Lawmakers and the Murphy administration are grappling with how to finance the beleaguered mass transit agency without having to raise fares.
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.
Earlier this week, the Economic Development Authority and NJ Transit approved, via a loophole in the state constitution, borrowing $500 million to finance the acquisition of 600 new buses and 17 locomotives.
The loophole allowed the agencies to bypass the voter approval needed to be able to sell that level of bonds.
“The agency needs resources, and I didn’t criticize anybody when we did the statehouse,” Sweeney told reporters prior to a Senate Select Committee hearing – the second so far – to gauge ideas on how to improve the agency’s finances. “NJ Transit needs a reliable source of funding.”
Transportation experts and environmentalists, as well as top transportation lawmakers who sat on the committee, all grappled with a variety of funding sources which the agency could tap into.
One idea floated was “value capital,” in which real estate surrounding the train station is used to generate revenue for the agency. Indeed, the Murphy administration is trying to boost so-called “transit-oriented development” around train stations across the state.
They also recommended using dollars from the sales, property, business or income taxes to help the agency. Sweeney has maintained that the millionaire’s tax – which Murphy said he wants to again push for in 2020 – would not do the job in bringing in those dollars.
“We want to diversify, we cannot be relying on one particular revenue stream,” said Janna Chernetz, the New Jersey director at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Right now NJ Transit relies heavily on passenger fares and that is very burdensome because when there is a funding gap, they are the first and they are vulnerable to seeing fare hikes,”
Panelists and lawmakers all maintained that NJ Transit needs to plan for many of the 600 new buses and 17 locomotives to be electrified and more environmentally friendly – and worried that a sufficient plan does not exist.
“Who’s overseeing the purchase of the buses and trains to make sure that we are moving towards electrifying buses?” Asked Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, one of the Legislature’s most vocal critics of NJ Transit. “I worry about how are we going to get public input into those purchases.”
Sweeney said that NJ Transit has ample time to change its plans for how it will spend the $500 million, in order to include a much larger electric fleet. “It’s not too late to get a plan in place so we can start putting electric buses in that plan, there needs to be a plan,” he told reporters after the hearing.
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, worried that the agency’s plan was minuscule at best.
“Right now, though, we are in the back of the bus and when we look at what NJ Transit has done so far it is not measuring up,” O’Malley said, pointing out that. New York City is expecting more than 100 electric buses by 2040.
“The $500 million that they’re spending now on new buses, we support that. We think it’s important to have new buses roll out on the street to support people,” added Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Nick Sifuentes. “We need a long-term plan to get to the full zero-emissions fleet by 2040.”
NJ Transit will deploy a pilot program of eight electric buses in Camden. But environmentalist, as well as the senate president, worried this was not enough, and that the pilot program could be more far-reaching to gauge how the electric buses would pan out in routes across the state.
“NJ TRANSIT is 100 [percent] committed to the electrification of our bus fleet, but we want to ensure that we do so responsibly and not disrupt bus service for our 500,000 daily riders,” agency spokesperson Nancy Snyder said in a statement.