This week’s question is a continuation of last week’s on New Jersey infrastructure issues.
New Jersey Transit has more than 2,000 buses and more than 700 trains, and there are more than 900,000 trips taken on NJ Transit every weekday. In total, passengers ride more than 3.5 billion miles per year on the system. In the past, Governor Murphy referred to NJ Transit as a “national disgrace”. And last week Senate President Steve Sweeney set-up a Senate Select Committee to deal with ongoing transit issues, and stated “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.”
What should we be doing to plan for the future for New Jersey Transit?
We can't continue to subsidize NJ Transit to the long-term detriment of taxpayers or the system itself. We must urgently maximize capital funds and operational budget savings. Reevaluating non-core assets and route optimization are viable options for the bold action we so desperately need.
NJ Transit parking lots are a primary example of an underperforming non-core asset. The lots are poorly managed with riders subsidizing parking through increased fares. The lots are, however, very valuable assets in terms of both cash flow and real estate. NJ Transit should unlock their value through a public-private partnership (P3). Doing so would provide an enormous cash infusion for capital improvements and allow for meaningful transit-oriented development, which would increase ridership. A fair P3 arrangement would ensure that NJ Transit, its riders and host communities all benefit, not just Wall Street bankers and developers.
As for route optimization, we can decrease NJ Transit service cancellations, delays and breakdowns and save operating budget dollars by reconsidering those buses and trains carrying very few passengers.
Bold action of this type would eliminate the egregious practice of transferring long-term capital budget dollars to fund operating expenses, thereby allowing us to adequately fund NJ Transit’s new 5-year capital plan and create a bright future for the system.
Around the world, successful public transportation systems are publicly subsidized. That subsidy reduces traffic, lessens greenhouse gases and provides transportation for those who have no other alternative. It enables public transit systems to deliver frequent, reliable and affordable service.
When public transportation systems don’t have adequate resources, something’s got to give. Without adequate resources services becomes less affordable, less frequent and less reliable. It can become a downward spiral.
Passenger rail service got its start in New Jersey with the Camden and Amboy Railroad in 1832. The Camden and Amboy became the Pennsylvania Railroad and finally Penn Central. But in the 1950’s and ’60s people began driving instead of taking the train or the bus. As a result, revenue fell causing railroads to cut back on maintenance and service. Those moves backfired, driving away more passengers, resulting in higher fares and deteriorating equipment. Ultimately the Federal Government stepped in and created Conrail which led to the creation of NJ Transit.
NJ Transit is the nation’s largest statewide transit system and the third-largest by ridership. A transit system that largely comes with a cost. But since 2010 the state subsidy for NJ Transit dropped 90 per cent despite rising operational and mechanical costs.
The loss of necessary funding has resulted in reductions in maintenance and the elimination of repairs, resulting in today's frequent cancellations and delays. The history of the collapse of Penn Central seems to be repeating itself.
The Senate’s examination of NJ Transit can and should serve the public interest. But that investigation is not a substitute for adequate state support that will allow NJ Transit to deliver what is the hallmark of any successful transit agency, affordable, frequent and reliable service.