NJ Transit head says fares will be going up

February 17, 2010 4:29:56 PM PST
Bus and rail commuters in New Jersey will face their second fare increase in three years by the end of June and possibly earlier, NJ Transit's new executive director said Wednesday. As Eyewitness News first reported on Tuesday night, NJ Transit riders could face a 20 percent to 30 percent fare hike and service cuts.

The proposals were outlined by NJ Transit officials to union leaders Friday and contained in an e-mail sent to members of the union that represents train conductors.

In the e-mail obtained by Eyewitness News, United Transportation Union Patrick Reilly detailed a meeting last Friday between NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein, NJ Transit's rail operations director William Duggan and officials of the UTU and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

"The plan is aggressive, and will effect all departments of NJT. The plan comprises of fare hikes of between 20%-30%, and service reductions that are currently being worked on. The service reductions could force the carrier to furlough some of its employees," Reilly wrote.

On Wednesday, after attending his first board meeting since being appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, Weinstein said he didn't know how much fares would go up but said the increase would "be not insignificant."

NJ Transit last raised fares in 2007 by about 9 percent.

Weinstein drew a dire financial picture for the agency and said it faces a projected budget deficit of nearly $300 million for the 2011 fiscal year. Contributing to the shortfall: About $150 million in federal stimulus money used in the current fiscal year that won't be available next year, and a 4 percent drop in ridership systemwide compared to a year ago.

The drop in ridership, which Weinstein attributed to the overall economic downturn, could also lead NJ Transit to cut service correspondingly, a move he called "not unreasonable."

"It's my job to balance the budget, and we're going to have to make some hard choices," he said. "I pledge to our fareholders that we will look at everything possible on the cost side of the equation before we talk about imposing burdens on the riders of our system."

Several speakers at Wednesday's meeting criticized the agency for imposing fare increases on public transit riders when automobile users are not facing an increase in the state's gas tax, the fourth-lowest in the nation behind Alaska, Georgia and Wyoming.

"I will call this what it is: discrimination," said David Peter Alan of the Lackawanna Coalition, a commuters' advocate group. "We are tired of public transit being treated like a business while highways are treated like a public giveaway program."

Weinstein noted that the New Jersey Turnpike increased tolls last year and that some of the increase is to subsidize the construction of an $8.7 billion tunnel in northern New Jersey that is expected to double the number of trains that can travel in and out of Manhattan.

The tunnel project has been criticized by some for its hefty price tag, but Weinstein said NJ Transit isn't changing course.

"We continue to be committed to going forward with the tunnel," he said. "It's an important project that is going to generate billions of dollars in economic activity for this region."

Last week, Gov. Chris Christie said he would withhold about $33 million from NJ Transit's current fiscal year's budget of $296 million as part of his effort to freeze $1.6 billion in unspent money. Christie said he was taking the step to help close the state's $2.2 billion budget hole.

The impending fare hike drew criticism from Assembly Transportation Chairman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, who called it "a tax on working people already struggling to make ends meet."