Transportation coalition slams Democratic leaders over NJ Transit fare-hike proposal

IndustrialsAssociated Press

More than a dozen transportation and progressive advocacy groups sharply criticized the Democrat-led Legislature on Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to allocate more funding to NJ Transit so it can evade an expected fare increase.

Members of the New Jersey For Transit coalition said fare increases could hurt working people, lead to more congestion on roads and harm the environment. The groups sent a letter to leaders asking them to close the transit agency's budget gap but didn't hear back, Environment New Jersey director Doug O'Malley said.

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That silence spoke volumes, O'Malley said.

"It says the legislative leadership is not standing up for commuters right now," he said.

New Jersey Transit proposed earlier this year a roughly 9 percent fare increase as well as some service cancellations to close the roughly $60 million budget gap. Democrats are slated to vote on their 2016 budget Thursday.

The coalition, which includes the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Environment New Jersey, New Jersey Policy Perspective and New Jersey Working Families among other groups, argued Democratic lawmakers could have easily found the $60 million to close the gap, calling it a "drop in the bucket" of a more than $35 billion budget.

Assembly Democratic spokesman Tom Hester said the caucus has no interest in throwing more money at an agency with a spending problem.

"The Speaker does not believe handing NJ Transit a big pile of cash and trusting it to spend it properly is the answer," Hester said. "He and many other Assembly Democrats have called for NJ Transit to avoid the fare hikes by controlling its spending and showing some fiscal restraint and responsibility."

However, even if Assembly Democrats had allocated more money, it's not clear it would survive Gov. Chris Christie's line-item veto.

In the long-term, the coalition called for an increase in the gas tax by as much as 10 to 25 cents per gallon as a possible solution to the state's transportation issues, which also include a trust fund that is expected to become insolvent in the next fiscal year.

New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign Janna Chernetz said the tax ought to be tied to a price index so New Jersey residents won't face a funding crunch every two to five years.

The NJ Transit board is set to consider the fare hikes at a July 8 meeting. If approved, they would begin in October.