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Critical steps to fixing a transit system in crisis | Weinberg

Senator Loretta Weinberg | July 19, 2019 | North Jersey Record |


As any bus or rail commuter can tell you, New Jersey’s mass transit system is a mess.

Bus cancellations due to a shortage of bus drivers exacerbate overcrowding, and make commuters late for work or to get home. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is overcrowded during morning and afternoon rush hours because it has been over capacity for years.

PATH riders complain they can’t get on overcrowded trains in Jersey City during the morning rush. But that’s nothing compared to the nightmare on NJ Transit rail lines, where at least 1,320 trains were cancelled since January – 373 in June alone – due to a shortage of engineers or mechanical failures, forcing commuters to jam shoulder to shoulder on the next train that does run.

Our transportation infrastructure is the lifeblood of our economy, and the overcrowding and declining reliability of our mass transit network affects our economic growth, tax base, housing values and the quality of life of over a million commuters and family members.

We compete in a regional economy, and we are losing ground. While the Manhattan and Brooklyn economies are increasingly fusing into one, the failure to fix our worsening trans-Hudson transit crisis has left New Jersey in the lurch, Our suburbs compete with Long Island, Westchester and Connecticut, and it doesn’t help our housing prices when the Long Island Railroad and Metro North – which carry 675,000 weekday passengers – have less than half as many cancellations as NJ Transit does with 315,000 daily trips.

It’s easy to blame former Gov. Chris Christie. His cancellation of the ARC Tunnel project in 2010 cost us the opportunity to double NJ Transit rail ridership and provide one-seat rides to New York Penn Station on the Pascack Valley, Bergen County, Main and every other rail line. The new tunnels would have been completed by now, and we wouldn’t be facing the threat of a commuter Armageddon if one of the Sandy-damaged North River tunnels has to close for repairs before the new Gateway tunnels are built.

And, as our Senate-Assembly oversight hearings showed, Christie consistently underfunded NJ Transit, ignored racial and sexual discrimination lawsuits, and turned the agency into a patronage pit.

But Christie has been out of office for 18 months, and impatient commuters are right to ask when they can expect better service.

For the past four years — under both Governors Christie and Phil Murphy — we in the Legislature have fought on a bipartisan basis to develop long-term solutions that will expand service, improve reliability and make transit fares affordable and competitive. These efforts have begun to bear fruit over the past month:

  • Replacement and expansion of the Port Authority Bus Terminal wasn’t even in the Port Authority’s 10-Year Capital Plan until we fought successfully to force the New York and New Jersey governors to add $3.5 billion for a new bus terminal to the long-term spending plan in 2017. Hearings started July 10 on plans for a PABT expansion that will provide capacity for 38,500 additional New Jersey commuters by 2026.
  •  The budget put together by the Legislature and enacted in June tripled the rise in NJ Transit’s operating budget from a $25 million bump that didn’t even cover the struggling agency’s labor contract growth to a $75 million increase. The additional funding is important both to improve service in the upcoming year and to avert a future fare increase by beginning to bridge the $131 million shortfall NJ Transit projected for the following year.
  •  After years of prodding, the Port Authority’s proposed June revision to its 10-Year Capital Plan includes $1 billion to expand PATH capacity by 30% — over 42,000 daily riders — by 2021. The projects include a new signal system that will enable PATH trains to run just three minutes apart, the purchase of 72 new rail cars, and improvements to Jersey City platforms to enable the agency to run 9-car trains instead of 8-car trains on the Newark-to-World Trade Center line.

The expansion of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the PATH system to add capacity for 70,000 additional daily riders were critical components of the “Plan B” that former Senator Bob Gordon and I put forward to increase trans-Hudson commuter capacity expeditiously in the face of stonewalling by President Trump that has already delayed the new Gateway tunnels by at least two years.

We recognized that the 70,000 increase in daily bus and PATH capacity was needed not only to avert overcrowding, but also to lessen the devastating impact if one of the two Sandy-damaged tunnels needed to be closed for repairs before the Gateway tunnels are finished. Such a closure would cut NJ Transit and Amtrak service from 24 rush-hour trains to six between Newark and New York Penn Station, forcing 60,000 NJ Transit commuters to find another way to work. The longer Gateway is delayed, the more we need to find a way to expand trans-Hudson ferry service, as New York did on the East River.

On major transit projects, one of the key questions is “who pays?” That was the crux of the 4½ month battle between the legislatures and the governors over the Gateway bill, which would determine our state’s cost share for the most expensive mass transit project in U.S. history.

Last month, after weeks of hard negotiations, the New Jersey and New York legislatures teamed up to pass legislation that for the first time would require New York and New Jersey to pay equally for the local share of construction of the Gateway tunnels and the new Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River.

The original bill written by the New York and New Jersey Governor’s Offices and the current Gateway commission would have guaranteed three-year terms for the three current commissioners — including former Port Authority Co-Chair Steve Cohen of New York and lawyer Jerry Zaro representing New Jersey — and given them the unilateral power to determine how New York and New Jersey would fund their share of Gateway, how much each state would pay, and whether to impose user fees on NJ Transit and Amtrak to pay for it. Unlike other agencies like the Port Authority, the governors would have no veto power over the agency’s actions – giving them political distance from potentially unpopular decisions.

New York’s outstanding Assembly Authorities Committee chair, Amy Paulin, agreed to work with me to rewrite the bill, and she took the lead in adding important transparency and public accountability provisions, including requirements for public hearings, open public records and whistleblower protections. She also insisted — with our full support — that the legislation not be limited to building the new tunnels and the Portal Bridge, but also include construction of a new Penn Station South and other necessary projects to accommodate increased NJ Transit rail ridership.

My focus was to ensure that New York and New Jersey each would pay 50% of the local share for the tunnels and to block the new commission from imposing tolls on NJ Transit to pay for Gateway, as Christie originally proposed. We found it inconceivable that the New York and New Jersey Governor’s Offices and the current Gateway leadership were fighting tooth-and-nail for the ability not only to toll NJ Transit trains, but also to not have those tolls count toward New Jersey’s cost share.

We intentionally wrote the new $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund law in 2016 with no cap on annual borrowing in case we needed $1 billion or more in any year for Gateway or the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail expansion. With Governor Murphy already tapping Economic Development Authority bonds for New Jersey’s first $650 million share of Gateway, we saw no need to require NJ Transit commuters to shoulder a pay-as-you-go toll burden for tunnels that should be bonded because they were being built to last 100 years.

We ended up winning the battle over the 50-50 share and sharply circumscribed the commission’s ability to impose NJ Transit tolls. In any case, the New Jersey Senate leadership will not confirm any nominee to the Gateway commission who does not publicly commit to paying for New Jersey’s cost share entirely out of TTF or EDA bonds. With NJ Transit already facing a deficit next year and the state needing $2.7 billion more by 2022 to fully fund the pensions, there is no other sensible fiscal choice.

Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) serves as Majority Leader of the New Jersey Senate and represents the 37th Legislative District. She served as vice-chair of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee that held hearings on NJ Transit, Gateway and PATH, and serves as New Jersey co-chair of the Port Authority Bus Terminal Elected Officials Advisory Committee.


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