POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Are NJ Transit budget gimmicks driving up Turnpike tolls?

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy had little new to say Wednesday on funding for the state’s transportation system, amid lingering questions about his plans for identifying a steady stream of revenue for NJ Transit and reports the Turnpike Authority was considering a toll increase.

On Tuesday, during his annual budget address to the Legislature, the first-term Democrat had proposed a state subsidy for NJ Transit of nearly $600 million for the fiscal year that begins in July, a hike of more than $130 million over the current line item — enough to bridge a looming budget gap.

But Murphy did not follow through on the recommendation of lawmakers and advocates and reveal his thoughts on a reliable, discrete funding source for the state’s beleaguered mass transit agency, one that doesn’t depend on the year-to-year vagaries of the budget process in Trenton.

Taking press questions at an unrelated event at William Paterson University, Murphy on Wednesday again failed to fill in many blanks.

“We’ve been open from Day One to dedicated sources of funding, as long as it makes sense,” he said. “And one that we wouldn’t like is so called robbing Peter to pay Paul, in other words taking it from some other source and taking the money and putting it over here.”

Asked about reports that the Turnpike Authority is considering a toll hike on both the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, to pay for road improvements, Murphy said he was not familiar with the proposal.

“I want to see what the plan looks like,” he said. “And at the end of the day, I reserve the right to pull it back entirely or pull it back in part, and it’s too early to judge any of that.”

The Turnpike Authority could hold public hearings in March “… to determine an appropriate capital plan and explore funding to support those capital projects” according to Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the agency, which last increased tolls in 2012, a bump of more than 50%.

Murphy’s proposed budget for NJ Transit once again relies on diverting $460 million from the capital fund to its operating budget, and siphoning money from the Clean Energy Fund, as well as from the Turnpike — which has been the source of more than $2 billion since 2012 in funding for the mass transit agency.

In omitting any mention of a dedicated revenue source, Murphy’s budget proposal did not address a recent proposal by state Senate President Steve Sweeney that would make permanent the NJ Transit subsidies drawn from the Turnpike Authority and the Clean Energy Fund, as well as the Corporate Business Tax.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, the Bergen County Democrat who’s been a strong advocate for NJ Transit, thought Sweeney’s proposal provides a good foundation for negotiation.

“The Senate president put forth a viable plan to give a regular source of funding to NJ Transit,” she said. “I think it’s a good place to start a discussion between the Legislature, NJ Transit and the Governor’s Office.”

Advocates, meanwhile, repeated their call to place the transit agency on a more secure financial footing.

“They need a dedicated source of funding in order to stop the practice of raiding capital in order to fund operating expenses,” said Len Resto, the president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers.

Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, saw value in having the Turnpike Authority be a backstop for NJ Transit.

“They need to be working in concert with each other,” said Chernetz, whose nomination by Murphy to the NJ Transit board of governors is pending in the Legislature. “That way we are going to be able to keep commuters moving and protect the quality of life here in New Jersey.”

A representative of the Regional Plan Association, an influential voice in mass transit issues, saw the recent events as part of a process.

“There’s still some cards the governor has yet to play,” said Nat Bottigheimer, RPA’s New Jersey director. “We know the governor’s been discussing a new strategic plan for NJ Transit with various constituencies, preparing to announce it. That would be a perfect go-along with an additional funding proposal. That’s something that we have hope for.”

Murphy’s budget does not envision a fare increase for NJ Transit riders, who last were asked to dig deeper in 2015. But the agency continues to rely on fares to pay up to half its day-to-day expenses.

Murphy’s address is the beginning of months of negotiations with lawmakers and others before a formal budget is struck. In addition, NJ Transit is due to release a 10-year strategic plan in the near future.