Wednesday, April 14, 2010

NJ Transit Approves Major Fare Hikes

The dog and pony show continues with NJ Transit. They had proposed across the board 25% fare hikes and service cuts to bus and rail lines, with only a handful of job cuts to close a purported $300 million gap in funding. The gap was due in part to cuts in state funding and a 4% dropoff in commuters.

Today, NJ Transit approved a rate package that would increase rail prices by an average of 25% and increases bus fares by an average of 10%.
After getting strong negative feedback at public hearings, NJ Transit agreed this past week to reduce a 25 percent hike in bus fares to 10 percent.

About $3.9 million in bus services were also restored, including two morning and two evening trips on the 722 Passaic Local.

But many bus riders should also expect to wait 5 to 10 minutes longer to be picked up at stops throughout the state because service cuts are part of the plan.

Commuters also face a costlier, longer ride as NJ Transit has slashed across-the-system services by 4 percent while imposing some of the largest fare hikes in its history.

The agency says it has no other solutions for plugging a $300 million budget hole and replacing an 11 percent cut in state funding, which Governor Christie announced last month.

The hikes have drawn outrage from rail advocates and riders who fear that mass transit will become unaffordable, and force people to choose their cars over trains and buses.

The state has not raised its gas tax in two decades.

Critics said the fare hike will balance the state's budget woes on the backs of those who can least afford it, and could worsen the state's problems with traffic congestion and pollution.

NJ Transit said the plan includes interchangeable features that allow customers to connect between trains and buses without paying additional costs. However, off-peak roundtrip discounts - used today by about 17 percent of rail users - will be eliminated.

Ridership is down 4 percent from last year, compelling NJ Transit to match that with a 4 percent reduction in service.

In all, NJ Transit expects to eliminate 32 of 725 commuter trains. A few lines will see a handful of trains cut, mostly those that have the most frequent service such as the Northeast Corridor.
So, how exactly does this new fare scheme close the budget problems?

It doesn't - the numbers don't add up, but everyone is making as though it does.

If ridership was down 4% from last year and there was a 4% reduction in service, what about a 4% reduction in workforce to reflect the lower need? Instead, NJ Transit cut about 200 workers from their workforce of more than 11,000. That's a drop in the bucket. Moreover, where exactly is the gap in funding going to be made up when the initially requested 25% fare hike on bus service was cut to 10%? Was a 25% fare hike request even necessary when 10% was deemed sufficient? Moreover, the bus fares aren't exactly going up by 10%. Local bus routes will see an average hike of 10%, but interstate and commuter buses are going up 25% as well, so those commuters going to the Port Authority Bus Terminal will see the 25% hit just as surely as those riding the Northeast Corridor or Bergen/Main Line.

It's little wonder that people should not trust NJ Transit and the state when it comes to mass transit and its budgeting process. The 10% hike in bus fares is seen as a victory because it was less than the 25% initially demanded but from a fiscal standpoint - none of this makes any sense. Where is the money to make up the difference coming from if the state isn't providing the funds and NJ Transit isn't cutting costs elsewhere? Moreover, the fare hikes might drive more people to hit the roads in their cars than use the significantly more expensive mass transit options.

Gov. Christie is right that there is a patronage mill operated at NJ Transit, and the state suffers all the more for it, but cutting mass transit funding means greater pressure on roads - more congestion, traffic, pollution, and a less competitive economic climate. For all the talk of raising the gas tax to fund mass transit, it's past time to talk about curbing spending elsewhere in the state budget to focus on basics, which happens to include infrastructure and mass transit.

The summary of rail changes is here.

Then, there's the stupidity of spending $480,000 on consultants to determine whether it would pay to privatize NJ Transit parking lots or otherwise monetize them to raise funds for NJ Transit operations. Instead of privatizing, impose a set fee for day use at all NJ Transit owned-facilities to generate revenues that can go to rail and bus operations. This isn't exactly rocket-science here, and spending money on consultants to do what NJ Transit should have been doing for years is a waste of money. It benefits no one but the consultants.

Heck, NJ Transit should be looking at expanding its leasing rights at various stations to businesses like Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, and other local coffee shops, newsstands, or other business operations to generate revenues for station operations. These revenues can go to maintenance and upkeep and improve the image at some stations that are now missing any such amenities.

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