Monday, March 08, 2010

New Jersey Transit To Get $420 Million From 2009 ARRA? UPDATE: Not So Much

NJ Transit proposed massive service cuts and fare increases over the weekend to deal with a massive shortfall in the budget. So, it is quite curious that today a report surfaces that NJ Transit is going to receive $420 million from the 2009 ARRA - the stimulus package. (HT: legalbgl)

There's no word on what the money will go towards but it raises serious questions over the budgeting at NJ Transit and the timeliness of the fare increases.

NJ Transit proposed a 25% fare hike and service cuts on nearly all train lines and many bus routes. Some of these are changes that should have been done years ago, but when combined with fare hikes results in a loss of credibility when you end up paying more for less.

Speaking of paying more, it turns out that NJ Transit payroll is up 24% since 2006, which far outstrips the rise in inflation and cost of living, which was 7.3% for the same period. That's $154 million. Most private sector businesses weren't running those kind of wage increases - because they contain their costs better and reduced benefits and wages as the recession took hold.
Other payroll facts regarding 2006 and 2009, as obtained by the Press from public records:

-- Total overtime costs rose 22 percent, from $97.4 million to $118.5 million;
-- The total payroll rose 24 percent, from $646.4 million to 804.3 million;
-- The number of employees rose 14 percent, from 11,247 to 12,809;
-- The average total pay for all employees, including overtime, rose 9 percent, from $57,474 to $62,794.
That NJ Transit said that they'd cut 200 jobs shows that the agency isn't serious about cutting waste and featherbedding from its staffing. The agency increased its workforce by 14% even as the recession hit and demand for services has declined. That's unacceptable.

The $420 million, if it comes to pass will paper over all the accounting and budget problems just as surely as the stimulus package has done across the country. It means that states, localities, and public authorities like NJ Transit can avoid making the tough decisions to put their fiscal houses in order.

That's why we're in the mess we're in - living beyond their means and hoping for bailouts and taxes and fare hikes can't solve the problem when there's no money to be had from the taxpayers and commuters here.

The money wont be there next year, which means that we'll be back in this position again next year and fare hikes will be forthcoming (if they still aren't included this year). I expect that the money will somewhat defray the fare hikes, and some service cuts will be restored, but the underlying problems with NJ Transit will continue.

It wasn't $420 million after all. It was $52 million, which was previously earmarked and now specifically allocated to particular projects.
It is no consolation for bus and train riders who could shell out 25 percent more in fares beginning May 1, but federal officials today spelled out how $52.4 million in stimulus funds already earmarked for NJ Transit will be spent.

The funding includes more than $15 million for exterior pedestrian and traffic circulation improvements on the west side of Newark Penn Station and more than $36 million for the construction of a new intermodal station and parking facility in Pennsauken, Camden County, that will allow light rail passengers to transfer to Atlantic City Line commuter rail service and local bus service.

In addition, money that was set aside to buy buses will be reallocated to maintain buses.
Intermodal centers have a mixed history in usage around the state. Secaucus Junction is the most expensive and well known, and it is severely underutilized. An intermodal center opened in Wayne, and the NJ Transit plan is cutting bus and train service because ridership is down.

Spending on these new and expanded programs might make sense when you've got the money to make it happen, but NJ Transit can't afford its existing infrastructure, let alone add new infrastructure.

It can barely take care of what it already has - let alone bring it into conformity with existing ADA laws and design standards. Moreover, this does nothing to bring balance to the agency's budget.

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