Christie’s Budget Strategies Questioned

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie likes to portray himself as a fiscal conservative, but reporting by Kate Zernike in The New York Times (Oct. 30) questions this assessment, including Christie’s record on transportation issues.  In his election 4 years ago, Christie attacked his opponent, incumbent Jon Corzine, for using fiscal gimmicks to balance the budget.  However, according to Zernike’s article, Christie has used much the same tactics, including diverting money from such things as property-tax rebates, affordable housing, and funds for new energy sources to balance the budget instead.

On transportation, Christie made headlines when he cancelled a new rail tunnel under the Hudson, calling it a cost run-away; but he has issued more debt for transportation projects than any of his predecessors.  Meanwhile, New Jersey’s bond rating has sunk to one of the worst in the country, and the state’s own budget surplus has shrunk to its lowest percentage in a decade, in economic conditions in which state budget surpluses nationwide are growing.  The state’s transportation fund was depleted when Christie took office; he rejected calls to raise the state’s gasoline tax and instead asked the lame-duck Corzine administration to issue debt to replenish the fund.  When that tactic ran out of funds, he replenished the fund again with money that had been intended to build the trans-Hudson rail tunnel: $4 billion in bonds were issued, but to avoid future borrowing, Christie said he intended to increase the state’s contribution to the transportation fund.  Instead, he took the turnpike tolls intended for the transportation fund in 2013 and used them to help fill the gap in the state’s general budget, hit hard by less-than-anticipated revenue.

Christie intends to continue the policy of diverting the turnpike tolls to the general budget in 2014.  Hope, however, springs eternal: the state is now relying on online gambling, beginning in November, to bring in $180 million to help balance the budget.  However, the Office of Legislative Services says that it has been “unable to identify any independent source” to confirm such an estimate.

The complete article can be found at (limited access) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/nyregion/christie-embraces-budget-strategies-he-scorned-as-a-candidate.html

Transit Pushes Pepsi

Pepsi ads on NJT for the Super Bowl will earn NJT $635,000, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli (Star-Ledger, Sept. 26).  The ad agency involved will get another $400,000 or so from the deal.  Ads will appear at multiple stations, and on the backs and sides of buses and sides of rail cars.   Digital displays will also feature Pepsi ads.

The ad contract runs until the day after the Feb. 2, 2014, Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, which is being called the “first mass-transit Super Bowl”.  NJT expects a crush of riders for the event, and is extending 2 lower-level platforms at the Secaucus Junction transfer station to accommodate longer, 10-car trains to the stadium.  With the extended platforms, the railroad expects to handle 14,000-15,000 people per hour; the capacity of the stadium varies, but has been as high as 22,000.

No NJT Fare Hike This Year

On July 11, NJ Transit’s Board approved an operating budget of $1.94 billion that envisions no fare increase this year, making more than 3 years since the agency last increased fares.  The last increase, in May, 2010, averaged a whopping 22%t, including an average of 25% for heavy-rail riders—but this average hides an incredible increase of 47% for occasional riders, due to the elimination at that time of the off-peak round-trip discount ticket, plus the 25% increase on one-way tickets that occasional riders are now forced to use.  Executive Director Jim Weinstein said the no-increase streak is likely to continue, according to reporting by Jim Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (July 12). Weinstein noted that while a number of labor agreements need to be negotiated, “there’s no apparent reason why we should have to raise fares in the foreseeable future.”

The Board also approved a $1.23 billion capital budget that includes a new rail station and track loop at North Brunswick on the Northeast Corridor, begins work on replacement of the Portal drawbridge over the Hackensack River on the approach to New York Penn Station, and funds reconstruction work at Newark Penn Station and at the Elizabeth station.

 Cynics note that there are seldom fare increases in a gubernatorial election year, such as 2013, but often they seem to happen after such elections.

NJT Board Has Special Meeting to Expedite Repairs to Equipment and Hoboken Terminal

At a special meeting held mostly by telephone on Monday, March 4th, the New Jersey Transit Board of Directors voted to spend $20 million for repairs in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  The largest item, $16 million, will go to Bombardier for repairs on multilevel railcars that were left in low-lying yards at Hoboken and the Meadowlands, falling victim to flooding from the storm.  An additional $3 million will be used to repair wheel assemblies on various locomotives and cars.  The other $1 million will be spent on mold remediation and other repairs to Hoboken Terminal.  The shops at Hoboken are shuttered, the ticket office and customer service office are located in temporary trailers, and most of the waiting room is barricaded.

In reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (March 5), NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein is quoted in his description of the difficult job of repairing the low-slung “multilevel” double-deck passenger cars.  Attempts to drain water with holes were unsuccessful, and insulation and sound-deadening material remained waterlogged; warmer spring weather looms, which could bring growth of mold.  “Those floors were not built to be disassembled like that, so they had to tear them up literally with crowbars after the seats were taken out,” Weinstein said.  In all, 70 locomotives and 272 passenger cars were damaged, of which 43 engines and 89 cars have been returned to service; in addition, 48 newly-arrived multilevel cars have been put into service.  According to Joe Clift, former Long Island Rail Road director of planning and Lackawanna Coalition technical chair, “The lack of equipment continues to create problems for NJ Transit providing its full service.  The missing cars and the missing locomotives do have a direct effect on people.”
Hoboken service has also not yet returned to pre-Sandy levels.  Commissioner James S. Simpson called the special Board meeting only 9 days ahead of the regular scheduled meeting date.  He and NJT Executive Director James W. Weinstein said that the timing of the special meeting to approve the expenses would expedite the repairs.

Coalition Calls on NJT to Overhaul Electrically-Powered Cars

The Coalition has called on New Jersey Transit to overhaul the 230 electrically-powered Arrow III Electric Multiple-Unit (EMU) cars it owns and to cut back on on its purchase of multilevel cars from Bombardier.  The “Arrows” were manufactured in 1978 and were once the primary cars used on the M&E and other electrified lines at NJT.  Until Hurricane Sandy, they were used mainly on Gladstone trains.  The Coalition believes that overhauling and modernizing the fleet would be a good investment, since they provided faster schedules and greater operational flexibility than locomotive-hauled trains.  The issue is covered extensively in the January-February issue of the Railgram.

NJT NonUnion Workers to Lose Free Ride Privileges

The time-honored perk of giving all railroad employees will end January 1 for NJ Transit nonunion employees,  following action at NJT’s Oct. 15 board meeting.  Union employees have the free rides written into their contracts, so won’t be affected, at least for the time being—although union contracts are currently under negotiation.  The change would be largely symbolic: the benefits have an estimated value of $1.6 million per year, a tiny fraction of NJT’s $3.1-billion budget.  However, it would bring NJT in line with several other transit operators, such at the Port Authority, which have eliminated free fares or free tolls for at least some employees. A line of angry employees queued up for the lectern as 30 people signed up to oppose the change at the board meeting, but to no avail: the board’s vote was unanimous.  (Mike Frassinelli, reporting in the Star-Ledger Oct. 16)

Funding Increase Coming for Northeast Corridor; Benefits Our Trains, Too

The New Jersey Legislature has authorized funding for Northeast Corridor (NEC) improvements of $35.7 million for fiscal year 2013—an 81% increase over the $19.7 million originally proposed by the New Jersey Department of Transportation.  The NEC line is important for rail riders in our area, because Midtown Direct trains on the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton, and Gladstone trains use it to get to and from Penn Station.
Coalition Political Director Jim Raleigh and Technical Director Joseph Clift campaigned in Trenton for this increase, with help from Coalition member Brad Payeur.  A story by Clift, with bar chart detailing NEC funding, is in the June-July issue of the Railgram.

No Fare Hike in NJ Transit Budget

This article, formerly found at the link below, is from the Daily Record, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Lackawanna Coalition
NJ Transit’s new operating budget comes without a fare increase and the lowest rate of growth in 15 years, but transit advocates said the agency could spend more to fix nagging problems blamed for delays on the busy Northeast Corridor.
The fiscal 2013 operating budget grew by one half of one percent—or $9 million—compared to the fiscal 2012 spending plan, the lowest in 15 years, said Michael Lihvarcik, acting chief financial officer.
The article was formerly found at this link: http://www.dailyrecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article

Toll Collection: Not Free

Transit users pay fares.  Highway users (sometimes) pay tolls.  Transit users have often wondered how much of the fares they pay go to the fare-collection system.  For highway tolls, now we have some idea of how much of the toll goes not to highway maintenance or construction, but simply to collect the toll itself.

The costs of toll collection, it turns out, are not inconsiderable. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority runs the NJ Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, and has disclosed the costs of toll collection; this was reported by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (June 27).  Not surprisingly, tolls cost less to collect when paid electronically by the E-ZPass system: just 16¢ per toll. When motorists pay cash, the cost of collection rises to an astonishing 65¢ per transaction—more than the toll itself in some cases.

Fortunately for the Authority, E-ZPass usage is rising, to 76% on the Parkway and 79% on the Turnpike.  This means fewer jobs for toll collectors, who have seen their salary cut to $49,500 per year.  Now we need to know how efficient is the fare system on mass transit.

Record Transit Aid for NJ in Senate Transportation Bill‏

This article was published in the Daily Record and summarized by one of our members. It is quoted here as a matter of interest, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Lackawanna Coalition.

New Jersey would get $519 million for public transit, under the federal highway bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday.  (There was no comparison number stating the current funding level in the article.)
Highway aid for NJ would decrease by 4.6% to $988 million; other states are also said to see decreases in highway funding.  The vote was said to be bipartisan (74–22), and this puts pressure on the House to adopt the bill instead of its own version, widely opposed, which would have removed transit aid from Highway Trust Fund sources.
Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) praised the bill.
The Senate bill would also restore the tax benefit for transit commuters, and raise it to $240/month from the previous $230.  After the previous law expired, the benefit dropped to $125.
NJ funding for transportation services for the elderly and handicapped would increase from $6.5 to $7.8 million.
A provision championed by Sen. Menendez is included to provide $20 million to communities to plan development around transit hubs (article is not clear, but this amount may be the nationwide total).
The original article was previously found at http://www.dailyrecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012303140035