Sunday, March 06, 2016

The Day of Reckoning Fast Approaches in New Jersey

New Jersey residents are about to feel the cold sting of a strike by NJ Transit rail workers. They've been without a contract for years and the matter has gone to federal mediators, who have ruled multiple times in favor of the unions:
Several union representatives and elected officials speaking at the rally urged state leaders to accept recommendations from a Presidential Emergency Board, which sided with the unions. NJ Transit officials rejected those recommendations.

At least one of the remaining sticking points surrounds health benefits, with the unions offering to pay 2.5 percent of their straight time salary for health benefits.

NJ Transit wants employees to pay 10 to 20 percent of premiums, depending on which plan they're covered by.

Transit and rail union officials sat down Friday with federal mediators National Mediation Board in Washington, D.C., where the two sides discussed a new offer from the agency to avert a March 13 strike or lockout.

While the two sides failed to reach a settlement, a release from the National Mediation Board said the discussions were "positive and constructive."

Asked if an agreement is in the offing, coalition spokesman Stephen Burkert declined to discuss details.

"We're closer now than we were months ago," Burkert said following the rally. "We want to settle this, and we want to do it at the bargaining table."

The two sides will meet again Monday in Newark in hope of hammering out a final settlement, Burkett said.
So far, Governor Chris Christie, fresh off kissing Donald Trump's ass in the GOP primaries after dropping out of the race himself because he couldn't generate any traction despite spending more time in New Hampshire than New Jersey, has been uncharacteristically silent about this major issue facing the state.

It could be that Christie doesn't know what NJ Transit is, or that it is a major economic engine for the state. Or, he doesn't know how to deal with the problem. Either way, he's been MIA on transit issues and his GOP allies in the state legislature seem more interested in slashing or abolishing the estate tax than they are making sure that the transportation trust fund and pension fund obligations are met.

Let's also point out that NJ has not raised the motor fuels tax in a generation, while NJ Transit riders have faced repeated increases in fares over the past decade because the state continues to reduce its support for transit. New Jersey is one of the states most heavily dependent on mass transit, and the cuts and fare hikes have combined to leave the agency without wiggle room to deal with contract matters with its employees.

To help close an $80 million budget gap, NJ Transit has proposed to increase its fares an average of 9 percent, effective Oct. 1, 2015. This would be the first fare increase in five years; the last fare increase averaged 22 percent. As part of this proposal, some bus and train service would also be reduced. Meanwhile, the state’s gas taxes, already among the lowest in the nation, have not been raised since 1988.
The motor fuel tax now purchases less than it did a generation ago, so there's even less money to go around.

These workers deserve pay raises and it shouldn't be shouldered entirely by the commuters.

Frankly, there's no easy answers here - but it starts with refocusing attention on how the state budgets transit. Gov. Christie went ahead and pulled money from the Port Authority to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway in a decision that the federal SEC is investigating as a potential violation of bonding with the Port Authority. That's because the state didn't have any money in the trust fund to pay for the work. All across the state, bridges and other infrastructure is crumbling, and there's no money to do all the work.

This affects the ability of residents to get around the state, and affects public safety. After all, we shouldn't have to live in fear of concrete falling off bridges, bridge abutments collapsing, or structures failing entirely. And mass transit is one way in which more people can get around the state reducing congestion and traffic. Gov. Christie has long shown disdain for mass transit and these problems are coming home to roost.

Far from showing leadership, Gov. Christie is all but abdicating his leadership role and instead focused on how his choices can best suit his political future. That's no way to run the state, and it shows.

If this strike or lockout occurs, there is simply no way for hundreds of thousands of workers to get into the City. There isn't any capacity available to add buses to cover all the displaced workers. We're talking about gridlock, lost productivity both in New Jersey and in neighboring New York. Telecommuting is the only option for those fortunate enough to have it, but for those who work in fields where they have to be there in person, this will have serious financial consequences to them, their families, and their employers.

In plain English, the NJ Transit strike contingency plan is a bunch of wishful thinking and prayers, much like their asinine plan in place before Hurricane Sandy struck and severely damaged NJ Transit's rail operations for months.

Moreover, the strike would also cripple freight movement throughout the state since NJ Transit controls tracks used by freight lines and the freight wouldn't be able to move. This would have a devastating effect across the state.

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