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NJ Transit proposes massive 15% fare hikes as MTA chair taunts NJ Gov. Phil Murphy for budget hole

by Staff

NJ Transit wants to hike fares an eye-popping 15% but may still face a massive budget hole in a year – a dire situation that has the head of the MTA mocking the Garden State’s governor.

MTA chairman Janno Lieber roasted New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday over his transit budgeting chaos, taking a dig at one of the most vocal critics of the planned congestion toll in Manhattan.

“Phil Murphy said he was gonna fix New Jersey Transit if it kills him,” Lieber told New York state lawmakers during a budget hearing in Albany. “I’m not sure. He’s not dying, and I’m not even sure if he’s trying.

“It is disappointing that a governor that prided himself on Al Gore’s endorsement has left New Jersey Transit unfunded for reasons we don’t fully understand,” he later added.

NJ Transit also plans to ax its pandemic-era discount program — FlexPass — that provides a 20% discount on purchases of packs of 20 train tickets as it seeks to fill a budget hole.

The changes, which could take effect as soon as July, would up the price of a monthly pass for a commuter on the Morris-Essex line coming into Penn Station from Summit to $342 for a monthly pass, up from $298.

A commuter boards a New York City-bound NJ Transit train at Secaucus Junction. REUTERS

Additionally, there would be 3% fare hikes every subsequent year. The last fare hike was in 2015.

But even the massive increase in ticket prices would only buy Murphy a year of breathing room as budget documents show that NJ Transit will face budget deficits estimated at $767 million again next year. That’s roughly one-quarter of its total $3 billion budget.

Murphy has sued the federal government and MTA in a bid to halt New York’s congrestion toll program, which the MTA hopes to launch as soon as May.

The toll is expected to be $15 charged once per day for cars that drive south of 60th Street in Manhattan.

MTA chairman Janno Lieber speaks to reporters during a press conference in September 2023 at Grand Central. Robert Miller

New York officials hope the charge will get 120,000 cars and trucks off of the jam packed local streets and avenues while raising $15 billion for major upgrades to the MTA’s network of buses, subways and railroads.

Drivers coming in via the tolled East River and Hudson River tunnels would get a $5 discount; delivery-sized trucks would pay $24 per day and container trucks would shell out $36.

Murphy’s lawyers have offered a bevy of arguments against the new toll including: that the 4,000-page environmental review was insufficient, it’s unconstitutional because it would disproportionately hit New Jersey residents and that using toll revenues for transit projects violates federal statute.

Despite the arguments, the Garden State tolls New York drivers who are passing through on either the Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway and regularly uses toll revenues for other purposes, including patching NJ Transit’s finances.

NJ Transit’s budget documents released alongside the proposed hikes show that the 2026 deficit weighs in at three-quarter of a billion dollar deficit, despite an expected $470 million infusion from that year from the Turnpike.

The MTA has ordered more than 1,000 new subway cars to replace the aging trains on the letter lines. These new trains are part of the agency’s $55 billion upgrade budget, which is banking on $15 billion from the congestion toll. Paul Martinka
Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his annual ‘State of the State’ speech in Trenton earlier this year. AP

Transit advocates have warned for years that Murphy and Trenton lawmakers were gambling with NJ Transit’s finances by failing to come up with a plan to replace lost ticket revenue from the pandemic-era ridership fall-offs.

“Today’s fare hikes directly result from New Jersey’s continued failure to address a well-known problem, and NJ Transit riders deserve better,” said Zoe Baldwin, the top New Jersey expert at the Regional Plan Association.

“There are many ways to address NJ Transit’s looming fiscal cliff without resorting to such drastic measures and we are incredibly disappointed that none of the other options were seriously explored before riders were saddled with this fare hike.”

A commuter waits for a NJ Transit double-decker train into New York City. REUTERS

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul took flack for hiking the city’s payroll tax to fill the MTA’s major budget gaps last year. The levy allowed the MTA to keep fare increases to just a fraction of the size of those now sought in New Jersey, while increasing service on some of the subway’s letter lines.

NJ Transit defended its proposal in a statement.

“These budget challenges are not unique to NJ TRANSIT,” said the agency’s top boss, Kevin Corbett. “Transit agencies across the country are facing similar deficits due to continued lagging ridership compared to pre-pandemic levels, dwindling and depleted federal COVID relief funds, and continuing substantial increases in mandatory, non-discretionary and contractual escalations.”

Murphy’s office did not return a request for comment.

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