Tasked with exploring ways to improve NJ Transit service, the Senate Select Committee on NJ Transit heard from experts and witnesses about what they feel is needed to help trains and buses to run more smoothly. Money topped expert’s long list of what the agency needs, while witnesses offered testimony and several ideas for new sources of dedicated funding, most involving taxes.
“There are any number of potential sources for such revenues that have been discussed, including the restoration of sales tax to past levels, permit extensions of business income tax surcharges, and the establishment of a so-called millionaire’s tax,” said Kate Slevin from the Regional Plan Association.
“I know you guys are experts, which funding sources do you recommend?” asked Sen. Joe Cryan.
“I think we need to look at all the possible revenue streams. I think what’s important is that we don’t leave any stone unturned or any dollar unaccounted for, and diversifying those revenues so that we’re not heavily relying on one or another. But we need to make sure that everyone that’s benefiting from transit is paying into transit, not just the riders,” said Tri-State Transportation Campaign Director of New Jersey Policy Janna Chernetz.
Noting NJ Transit depends heavily on fares for half its operating budget, several witnesses warned the agency can’t ask riders to pay more — at least not now. But it’s facing an $86 million structural deficit in its next operating budget.
“NJ Transit riders can not bear this burden moving forward,” Chernetz said. “And they should not have to pay another penny until their system is where it should be.”
Funding’s only part of the agency’s problem. NJ Transit’s board still needs several more members to be appointed, particularly people with bus and rail riding experience.
“In order to fix the agency you need people who have intimate knowledge of what is wrong. You need to come at it from all sides, not just from the inside, and riders provide that critical angle. Those are in the best position to fix it are those who know what’s wrong with it, and those people are the riders,” Chernetz said.
The agency on Wednesday agreed to borrow $500 million to buy more buses and locomotives. But critics want to see more electric buses among the new purchases, and a better overall plan moving toward electrification.
“When we think of where we need to go for operational costs, where we need to go for impacts on climate — obviously electric buses are a lot better for climate — and where we need to go for the health of our kids lungs, electrification is the key way to go,” said Environment NJ Director Doug O’Malley.
“The $500 million that they’re spending now on new buses — we support that. We think it’s important to have new buses roll out on the street to support people. And we need a long-term plan to get to the full zero emissions fleet by 2040,” said Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Nick Sifuentes.
“The point is they’re going to borrow $500 million and we should start the transition. Not abandon what we’re doing, but start the transition. Because if we don’t it’s going to be too late,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Sweeney says it’s not too late to modify how NJ Transit would spend that $500 million. But the idea of a millionaire’s tax landed with a thud.
“Millionaire’s tax can’t go to this stuff. When you’re talking about these different taxes, they didn’t mention government reforms. They can save money too. But there are a lot of things that we’re looking at and we’re going to work on,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney is planning more meetings and he’s promising a report with funding recommendations in time for the governor’s budget message.