The transit agency held hearings in Newark, Paterson, Trenton and Manalapan, where officials said layoffs, salary freezes and spending cuts wouldn't keep fare increase and service cuts off the table.
"The budget gap can't be closed by internal efficiencies alone," NJ Transit budget director Michael Lihvarcik said. "Fare increases and service reductions are always a last result."
Rider advocates said the proposed cuts would have adverse effects on residents and interstate riders.
"Public transportation is the economic driver for the region," Mercer County Freeholder Lucy Walter said.
Walter suggested NJ Transit put its plans on hold until lawmakers hammered out Gov. Chris Christie's proposed budget.
"Transportation is going to be a critical piece in making this state run again," she said.
NJ Transit wants to raise bus and rail fares by 25 percent - $1.70 for local buses and light rails, up from $1.35; and as much as $16.50 on trains, up from $13.75.
Riders could also face the elimination of 32 of 725 commuter trains and service cuts on about 50 bus routes because of lower demand, an assessment several riders called unfounded.
The changes are part of efforts to offset a $300 million budget shortfall. The agency also had its state subsidy cut by 11 percent and lost $159 million in one-time federal funding.
"Twenty-five percent is outrageous," said Florence Musolino, who told officials she travel on NJ Transit into Manhattan every day. "It's up to you people to come up with a better answer."
Several riders asked for improvements to general operations.
Some wanted a decrease in service delays, for train conductors to be more courteous to passengers, and for all train doors to open when train are in stations.
"Ridership will only go up if you improve the way trains operate and how conductors interact with customers," said Ron Tola of Hamilton, a self-described train enthusiast who says he rides six regional trains daily.
NJ Transit last raised fares by about 9 percent in 2007 to accommodate expanded services for record high ridership.
The agency introduced new rail lines in recent years, including the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and a new light rail in Newark, as well as new double-decker train cars.
The plan calls for most of the proposed changes to take effect May 1. Rail cutbacks would take effect by June 30.
The hearings will continue at eight other locations Friday and Saturday.
To ensure an inclusive public comment process, NJ TRANSIT has scheduled eight public hearings and four information sessions at locations across the state and in New York from March 25 through March 27. The hearings and information sessions will be held in the evenings and on Saturday to encourage participation.
Members of the public also may submit comments online at www.njtransit.com/budget, where details of the proposed fare increases and service changes are available. The online public comment period has been extended until 5 p.m., Monday, March 29.
To date, NJ TRANSIT has received about 2,500 comments via the online comment form.
PUBLIC HEARINGS & INFORMATION SESSIONS
Thursday, March 25, 2010 -- 5:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Passaic County Community College - Theater Ellison Street & Memorial Drive, Paterson, NJ
NJ TRANSIT Headquarters - Board Room One Penn Plaza East, Newark, NJ
Trenton Transit Center 72 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton, NJ
Monmouth County Library - Meeting Rooms 2 & 3 125 Symmes Drive, Manalapan, NJ
Friday, March 26, 2010 -- 5:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station County Road & County Avenue, Secaucus, NJ
Camden City Hall - Council Chambers (2nd Fl.) 520 Market Street, Camden, NJ
Morristown Town Hall - Senior Community Center (3rd Fl.) 200 South Street, Morristown, NJ
Long Branch Middle School - Auditorium 350 Indiana Avenue, Long Branch, NJ
NEW YORK (INFORMATION SESSION)
Port Authority Bus Terminal - Times Square Hall (2nd Fl.) 625 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY Saturday, March 27, 2010 -- 1:00 - 4:00 p.m.
HACKENSACK (INFORMATION SESSION)
Bergen County Freeholders - Public Meeting Room (5th Fl.) One Bergen County Plaza, Hackensack, NJ
ATLANTIC CITY (INFORMATION SESSION)
Atlantic City Rail Terminal - Lobby One Atlantic City Expressway, Atlantic City, NJ
EAST BRUNSWICK (INFORMATION SESSION)
East Brunswick Community Arts Center Theater 721 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick, NJ
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)