NEWARK — Standing next to a cardboard cutout of Gov. Phil Murphy, activists and bus riders gathered near the state’s busiest bus station Thursday to call on the governor to increase funding for NJ Transit so they can avoid fare hikes and service cuts.
Cuts in service “will create significant challenges to commuters who rely on public transit to access key employment centers, to see their family members, to access entertainment, all manner of things that folks do when they take public transit,” said Renae Reynolds, executive director of the advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which led the rally.
Concern about service cuts has grown in the state’s urban centers as private bus operators, including DeCamp, Coach and A&C have terminated bus routes that had not yet recovered profitable levels of ridership lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response, NJ Transit has modified some of its routes and added service so residents in Jersey City, Newark, Elizabeth, the Oranges and other parts of Essex County would not be stranded without public transportation.
Cuts and fare hikes ahead?
However, additional cuts and fare hikes could be looming as NJ Transit faces back-to-back years of operating deficits, starting with $119 million expected in fiscal year 2025 and $917.8 million predicted the year after that. Murphy has not raised fares at the agency in six years.
Reductions in service and the agency’s history of unpredictable and underfunded budgets have made commuting a challenge for those who don’t drive.
Carla Cortes of Passaic County, a member of the immigrant rights group Make the Road, said she and her family use public transportation every day, and when the bus doesn’t show up, or shows up late, it can have big consequences.
“My daughter relies on the bus to get to her job at a Paramus mall and so many days the bus comes late and she’s late for work,” Cortes said. “My daughter has had her pay docked, she’s lost hours at work because the bus is late and she gets to work late.
“She also gets home too late because the bus is late taking her back,” Cortes said. “She’s only 17 and it makes me worry about her safety.”
Adding service a challenge without more state aid
In addition to picking up the routes terminated by the private operators, NJ Transit added 346 weekday bus trips this summer to address routes that were overcrowded and take workers to new work centers and warehouses.
But NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett warned at September’s board meeting that trying to meet that demand and add service will be difficult long term without more aid.
“I don’t have the budget right now. The governor, the Legislature, our board is aware of that so we’ll stretch as far as we can, but at some point we need resources,” he said.
For Alex Ambrose, a policy analyst at nonpartisan think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, many of the problems at NJ Transit come back to funding.
“If lawmakers don’t act our state will give away $1 billion in much needed revenue instead of investing it in New Jersey’s working class,” said Ambrose, who recently co-authored a report that makes the case to direct the corporate business tax surcharge to NJ Transit instead of letting it expire at the end of the year, as Murphy has indicated he plans to do.
“Decades of disinvestment and continued diversions from unrelated funds and expiring federal funds have left the agency facing a catastrophic cliff,” Ambrose said. “Lawmakers are already threatening service cuts and fare hikes, which are a Band-Aid solution for a structural problem.”
Since its creation in 1979, NJ Transit has never had state money constitutionally dedicated to its operations budget, unlike many other states who dedicate aid — through taxes, surcharges and fees — to support their transportation agencies, which were created to provide public transportation at a rate subsidized by government.
NJ Transit’s operational budget holes are filled on a year-to-year basis from the Clean Energy Fund, state general fund, by diverting funds from capital, and through a memorandum of understanding with the Turnpike Authority.
In some years, lawmakers, who determine the agency’s budget, also rely on cutting NJ Transit’s workforce and service and raising the cost of tickets.