Strike Averted, Focus Now Turns to Reliable Funding for Transit

By David Cruz

It was business as usual this morning at Newark’s Penn Station as commuters hustled across the concourse on their way to trains that were operating mostly on schedule, the dreaded NJ Transit strike — and its apocalyptic alternative commuting scenarios — averted. As negotiations dragged on through Friday, grim-faced union negotiators suggested an impasse, but by early evening, Gov. Chris Christie strode to microphones and made it official.

“It’s good news on many levels,” he said during a press conference on Friday. “First we avert a strike and the damage it would do to our economy, and we’ve reached an agreement that is longer than the presidential executive board recommendation, covering the period not only since 2011, when the last contract expired, but now through the end of 2019. This is going to give workers and commuters a measure of certainty and stability as we go forward.”

Both NJ Transit and the coalition of 11 unions that are parties to the agreement have kept details secret until rank and file members vote on the deal, but the Wall Street Journal reported today that the union gave in on increased health care costs, agreeing to pay more for their health coverage and accepting deductibles for the first time. Management reportedly agreed to the union’s salary demands — 21 percent over eight and a half years, plus retroactive pay for recent retirees. None of it will adversely affect your pocketbook, said the governor.

“From the perspective of New Jersey taxpayers and New Jersey Transit fare payers — who I represent — I want to let you know that we’ve settled the contract with their interests being placed above all other interests,” added the governor.

Which sounds great if you’re a commuter who’s had to endure a 30 percent jump in fares since 2005. But, like a lot of projections you hear from government, the guarantee isn’t as rock solid as you might think. Some lawmakers today were wondering aloud whether the settlement will mean much of a change in how NJ Transit does business, which generally means fare hikes to cover increased costs.

“When I learned that they had failed to reach a settlement with the unions for five years, it was obvious that that was a time bomb, ready to explode,” said Assemblywoman Amy Handlin. “It was only a question of when it was going to explode, not if it was going to explode, so here we are, and unless they get their strategic planning house in order, we’re going to see it again.”

And Transit says it really can’t plan much without a more reliable source of funding, mainly the Transportation Trust Fund, which is the subject of much debate, but little action, in Trenton.

“If we’re spending almost a quarter of a billion dollars today outside the budget process, how in the world are we even going to begin to tackle funding the Transportation Trust Fund?” asked Assemblyman Anthony Bucco.

It’s a burning question that could’ve been more sharply drawn into focus had there been a strike. But luckily, neither side seemed willing to jump off that cliff, avoiding one crisis, while perhaps waiting for another to ripen.