Saturday, March 27, 2010

Continuing the Critique of NJ Transit

NJ Transit is expected to raise fares by 25% on average and to reduce service throughout its system as a way to close a current year operating deficit and an expected $300 million deficit next year that is the result of the state lacking money to cover all of its expenses.

I think a lot of people wouldn't necessarily argue with a fare hike if the service levels remained the same, particularly on high traffic routes, but the service cuts aren't exactly going to provide the kinds of savings that one would expect.

With all of the service cuts, NJ Transit is reducing its own workforce by all of 200 workers. That's with ridership down 4.4% and revenues down by a similar amount. 200 workers out of 11,000 workers? That's a drop in the bucket and doesn't reflect the poor business decisions made by NJ Transit in the past that saddles the system with higher operating costs and ongoing debt financing that are simply unaffordable.

Secaucus Transfer is case in point. The $1 billion project linking all but one of the system's rail lines remains a white elephant and is severely underutilized particularly in light of the cost. That will only be exacerbated when the ARC tunnel project comes to fruition as a rail connection will eliminate the need for most people to transfer to head into midtown Manhattan.

Those are choices that the current NJ Transit leadership has to confront, and the choices they have to make must be prudent ones. Raising fares isn't necessarily prudent since it will force people onto the state's highways as cheaper alternatives.

However, canceling trains that operate with a fraction of the ridership needed to sustain them - such as multiple trains on the River Line and Atlantic City lines are well overdue since their ridership would be better accommodated by bus service instead of train service, which is more expensive. Consolidating bus routes may make sense where ridership is lacking. But consolidating and reducing these routes must be coordinated with a reduction in workforce and changes in work rules that enable a more efficient use of the workers on hand while maintaining safety and security.

NJ Transit should not undertake additional infrastructure expansion when it cannot afford existing infrastructure. It's not sexy to do refurbishment and rehabilitation of existing system components, but it is absolutely necessary to keep the system operating. Instead of expanding stations and installing stations where no one is clamoring for service (think Ramsey Rt. 17), service improvements should focus on locations where the service is most utilized and has been ignored.

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