Former NJ Transit Executive Talks Transportation Fund, Possible Transit Worker Strike

New Jersey’s life blood flows through the transportation grid. And there’s a coming crash. The transportation trust to fund bridge and road repairs runs dry June 30. NJ Transit‘s depleted operating budget supplanted by the take from Turnpike tolls could also run dry in June. Its unionized transit workers could strike as soon as March. To walk us through the mire is NJ Transit’s former deputy executive director and the founding director of the Alan Voorhees Transportation Center Martin Robins.

Williams: As always I’m glad you are here.

Robins: Well thank you very much.

Williams: How close are we to a solution to the Transportation Trust Fund?

Robins: Well, maybe. I think that the legislative leaders have a very good idea of what they want to propose.

Williams: Twenty-five cent gas tax?

Robins: Yes and they are just discussing some details there.

Williams: Still going to be a tough sell.

Robins: But it will be a tough sell. The trouble is that it doesn’t seem to sink in with the public about what’s needed. We are so far behind in terms of financing transportation capital that the 25 cents is inescapable. We’ve really short changed transportation capital for at least a decade or more.

Williams: And the longer we put this off the more…

Robins: The more it’s needed. There is a couple of different factors. One is Mother Nature has an effect on the public facilities, wears them out. They have to be modernized and improved. The second part of it is that New Jersey has an economy that constantly changes and people’s needs change and the transportation system has to anticipate those, or at least catch up. That hasn’t been happening enough with the limited amount of money we have.

Williams: The ARC Tunnel, the famous ARC Tunnel, was canceled. Since then the Turnpike Authority’s been giving toll money to NJ Transit to supplant their budget. I am surprised to see that the NJ transportation operating budget was cut by 90 percent from $300 million to $30 million. How did that happen?

Robins: Well, the way it happened was two things interacted. The governor took money from the Turnpike Authority and supplanted the general fund as a principle way by which the NJ Transit would gain operating assistance. By doing that, it put NJ Transit in a very vulnerable position. The Turnpike money is only good through this June and then it could stop. There’s some indication that a portion of it, less than 50 percent, may be coming to NJ Transit but it’s going to leave a huge budget deficit and the governor has stopped using the general fund and so the whole budget is constructed around that assumption. So, NJ Transit is in an extraordinarily tough position.

Williams: And now they are facing a union workers’ strike. The union workers have not had a contract in five years.

Robins: It’s all part of the same piece. A lot of things have been pushed off like the proper funding of NJ Transit operations. The labor negotiations in the case of rail are now five years after the expiration of the contract. With that comes the threat, not only of a strike, but the threat of lots of retroactive pay that’s going to be incorporated in any settlement either before a strike or after a strike. That is going to entail a lot of financial responsibility for NJ Transit to make matters worse this year.

Williams: Is a gas tax enough to fund the Transportation Trust Fund, help the operation budget of NJ Transit — you are shaking your head already — and pay what inevitably is going to be union wage hikes?

Robins: The way New Jersey has constructed its funding of transportation, capital that comes from the Transportation Trust Fund is restricted so that it does not go into the operating budget. There has always been an argument about that, and there is a very limited amount of money that goes into the operating budget. So, what we have is a separate stream of revenue that has been toyed with for the last few years that is now seriously in jeopardy.

Williams: What I am hearing is doom, Dr. Doom.

Robins: Ha. I have been worried for many, many months as we approach this moment in time.

Williams: Let’s change the subject.

Robins: Let’s!

Williams: The new Gateway Tunnel, the Gateway Development Corporation has been formed and NJ Transit doesn’t have a seat at the table. What does that mean to you?

Robins: I’m worried about that. I can’t figure out why that has happened. It seems to me that NJ Transit is such a dominant operator particularly where the new tunnels are going to be involved. It operates at least 80 percent while Amtrak operates less than 20 percent. Yet, NJ Transit is not at the table. It doesn’t make sense to me. I wish they had constructed it differently. I am waiting to see how it all plays out. Maybe it will be acceptable but I am worried about that.

Williams: Very quickly, your advice to the new — whoever it is — NJ Transit executive director.

Robins: Take a deep breath. It’s going to be a very difficult period. At least the Gateway thing is sort of settled. That is a major issue off the table. But the other ones we have been talking about — the strike, the operating budget and the Transportation Trust Fund — those are all nail biters and their outcome will have a tremendous effect of the sanity of the next executive director.

Williams: Thanks for being here, Martin Robins.

Robins: Thank you.