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15% NJ Transit fare hike would be a ‘huge burden’ on working New Jerseyans, riders say

by Staff

Commuters and advocates made their final arguments against a proposed 15% fare increase, as speakers packed NJ Transit’s boardroom in Newark Friday night and told officials to vote it down.

Friday was the end of a public comment period on the potential hike. NJ Transit’s board of directors is scheduled to vote on the fare increase on April 10. Pending approval it would take effect on July 1. After that, the proposal calls for an automatic 3% annual fare increase starting on July 1, 2025, and occurring annually without an end date.

It also would end the discounted FlexPass ticket and put a 30-day limit on the life of tickets, which now don’t expire.

While advocates said that vote should be put off until the state budget was approved, many of the 34 people who testified during the two-hour session said the quality of service doesn’t warrant a 15% fare increase and will have a sharp economic effect on riders.

Kweli Campbell of Orange commutes to a job in Brooklyn and invited NJ Transit board members to ride her Morris & Essex train to see if the service is worth a 15% increase.

“I can get there in an hour if everything is on time. That is not often the case,” she said. “It doesn’t justify the increase.”

Her concern was more about the impact of a fare hike on her co-passengers, working class people of color who use the train to get work at all different hours of the day.

“We have Black and Brown people who rely on the train to go to work,” Campbell said. “A fare increase to these communities of color is egregious. I can think of nothing I can say that will change what you guys think. Take the train and see what it is.”

Several criticized NJ Transit’s decision to approve a 25-year lease on new offices at 2 Gateway Center for $500 million, including George Kalfer. He suggested Gov. Phil Murphy should press the MTA to get revenue from it’s proposed $15 congestion pricing fee to enter lower Manhattan.

“Get your spending under control before you ask for more revenue,” he said. “It looks like you will get more passengers due to congestion pricing but we heard nothing about getting our share of the money.”

John Reichman, an Empower NJ steering committee member, questioned why Murphy was more concerned about opposing New York’s congestion pricing plan, which he said impacts fewer people than raising NJ Transit fares.

“If this fare increase is approved, the vast majority of those commuting into New York will be paying more for their commutes, not because of congestion pricing, but because of the governor’s proposal and this board’s rubber stamp,” Reichman said. “Where is the governor’s concern and empathy for essential workers who have no choice but to use mass transit?

Others took issue with the 3% annual hike.

“I urge the board to vote no,” said Alana Little of Jersey City “This is a 30% increase in the next 6 years, it’s a huge burden on working New Jerseyans and people who can’t afford a car. Meanwhile there’s no guaranteed improvement.”

While commuter Alexander Arevalo said a fare increase could be justified since there have been increased costs since the last fare increase in 2015, the other aspects of the proposal — eliminating FlexPass, and a 30-day expiration limit on tickets — concerned him.

“Eliminating FlexPass affects riders like me who commute three times a week, a one way ticket is $7.75, a FlexPass brings it to $6.24,” Arevalo said. “When you eliminate FlexPass and take the total fare hike as proposed, my fare will go up $8.90, a 43% increase. On a monthly basis, we’re talking hundreds of dollars.”

He suggested NJ Transit follow New York’s MTA which has a 60-day expiration date for tickets, calling it, “more reasonable.”

While transit and environmental advocates made the case that Gov. Murphy’s proposed business transit fee will provide enough revenue to avert a forecasted fiscal gap caused by the ending of federal COVID-19 aid to avert a fare increase, individual commuters said fares shouldn’t be hiked.

“I hope you take what you heard back to the governor and vote no,” rider Eric Benson said to two board of directors members at the hearing. “I’ve heard story after story about riders struggling with no other option. The agency is letting them down.”

Several senior citizens talked about their concern that people on a fixed income will have to choose between transportation and essentials such as food and medicine.

Of concern is that low-income local bus riders would be hardest hit by this fare increase because it charges the poorest riders the full percentage of the increase. Past fare increases spared local bus riders from the full percentage of fare hikes in 2010 and 2015.

“This isn’t a little percentage, it jumps to 15% and then 3%,” said Vincent Fedor of Bayonne, who said he is a disabled person who rides the bus and light rail. People are deciding whether to (buy) food or shelter…it’s appalling they want to raise it this high.”

The 15% fare increase proposal was introduced on Jan. 24. In addition to $44 million in non-service cost-cutting and $52 million in revenue enhancements, a predicted $119 million budget gap is brought to $106 million, an amount that the fare increase would cover.

“The message from everyone is clear, you’d shouldn’t balance NJ Transit’s budget on the backs of riders,” said Doug O’Malley, Environment NJ Executive director. “Instead, the governor and the legislative leadership need to provide dedicated funding and enough funding to end this fare hike.”

The proposed increase would raise the cost of a one zone bus fare from $1.60 to $1.80, a trip from Jersey City to the Port Authority bus terminal in New York would increase from $3.50 to $4, bus fare from Toms River to New York City would rise from $21.25 to $24.40, according to agency documents.

Rail fare would increase from $16 to $18.40 for a one-way trip from Princeton Junction to New York. Light rail fare will increase from $2.25 to $2.55 on Hudson-Bergen, and from $1.60 to $1.80 on Newark and Riverline light rail. Proposed fare tables are on NJ Transit’s website.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @CommutingLarry.

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