Want your voice heard on NJ Transit’s planned 15% fare hike? You’ll have to go in person.

NJ Transit is asking the public for feedback on its proposal to hike bus and train fares by 15%.

It’s midway through a weeklong series of public hearings, but some riders say the sessions are too hard to attend and are criticizing the agency for not offering any way to watch or participate in them remotely. The public can submit comments by email at hearing@njtransit.com, but no streams are being made available.

Hearings continue on Thursday morning in Woodbridge, Thursday evening in Union County, Friday morning in Secaucus and Friday evening in Newark.

At hearings so far this week, some transit riders and advocates have objected to raising costs without first fixing the various service problems on bus and rail lines, and to the lack so far of a dedicated funding source for NJ Transit.

The fare increase would go into effect on July 1 and would be NJ Transit’s first in nine years. The proposal also calls for a 3% annual hike starting in 2025. NJ Transit’s board of directors plans to vote on the hikes in April.

The state-owned agency projected last year that its budget shortfall would reach $119 million for the fiscal year beginning this July — but the fare hike is intended to close that gap. The shortfall could increase to $917 million in the fiscal year beginning in July 2025, and $957 million the following year, according to NJ Transit’s four-year budget forecast. Gov. Phil Murphy proposes meeting that by essentially reinstating a tax surcharge on New Jersey corporations that he’d previously let expire, but restricting the tax to companies making more than $10 million in a year and dedicating the funding to NJ Transit.

The hearings kicked off on Monday in the South Jersey suburb of Cherry Hill’s library. Only 10 people stepped up to the podium during the public comment portion of the sparsely attended meeting.

“The only case for the 15% fare hike is it’s the first since 2015,” Salem County resident James Thornton said during his public comment. “Many costs understandably have increased since then.”

But, he said, ongoing issues make a fare hike tough to accept.

“Ongoing daily bus and train cancellations that leave riders stranded or scrambling for other ways to get to work, school appointments or other such commitments. … Trips are canceled for mechanical issues, crew or driver availability or other factors within or beyond NJ Transit’s control,” he said.

The frequency of the issues leaves riders “with the impression that NJ Transit just doesn’t care,” he said.

Cherry Hill resident Barbara Coppins said there “seems to be a problem with those trains at all of the time breaking down” on the River Line train she takes daily from her hometown to Palmyra. She said she’d like to see this line fixed before NJ Transit hikes the fare.

Another Cherry Hill resident, Brian Hornak, didn’t offer a public comment but told Gothamist that NJ Transit shouldn’t be proposing fare hikes right after moving into a brand new $440 million office.

“You move into a new corporate headquarters, with a deficit you have, and you’re going to want money from passengers when you can’t even get a clean restroom in the majority of the stations,” Hornak said. “Let’s cut the BS and start telling the truth about what’s going on and fix it.”

Tough for the public to attend

Several riders and advocates said this week that the hearings weren’t offered at convenient locations or during times many riders could attend.

Renee Reynolds, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said the group pushed NJ Transit for a virtual hearing option but that request was denied. The nonprofit advocacy organization works to advance equitable transportation policies in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“It makes it difficult for the regular everyday person that has to get to work to make their voices heard if they have to be in person. So that was really disappointing,” she said.

Middlesex County resident Adam Reich said he’s unable to attend an in-person hearing without a masking requirement due to his underlying health issues. Reich commutes to work using the Northeast Corridor line three times a week, and estimated the proposed 15% hike would cost him an extra $500 annually.

“ I asked New Jersey Transit for disability accommodation specifically in the form of a virtual option, and it was something they denied,” he said.

NJ Transit didn’t immediately respond on Wednesday to a message asking why it chose not to offer remote access to hearings.

Alex Ambrose, a policy analyst with progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said that while riders can send comments via email, there is a difference between sending a message and speaking at an in-person or virtual hearing.

“You know that your voice was actually heard by a real person,” Ambrose said.

Future funding needed

Ambrose plans to attend the final hearing of the week on Friday in Newark. She said that she will argue that since Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed the corporate tax surcharge — which could generate approximately $800 million annually for the agency — NJ Transit should pause the consideration of a fare hike until after the state budget is finalized in June.

“The agency’s future looks very different than it did back in January when this proposal was first introduced,” Ambrose said. “This funding will be a game changer for transit and the millions of riders who rely on its service.”

Emmanuelle Morgan, executive director for the nonprofit Hudson County Complete Streets, said she plans to speak at the hearing in Secaucus on Thursday morning. She called Murphy’s corporate tax proposal “a good start.”

“But New Jersey Transit has dozens of unfunded projects. We’ll need much more support and dedicated funding that can’t be delivered on the backs of everyday riders,” she said.

In a presentation delivered at the start of each hearing, NJ Transit says it also plans to eliminate the FlexPass pilot program, which allowed riders to buy tickets at a discounted rate. The agency is also proposing a 30-day expiration on all one-way tickets.

“People like me, people that don’t commute every single day into work, but do want to save a little bit of money on their commutes, like with the FlexPass, it will unfairly put an economic burden on riders who need that flexibility,” Ambrose said.

Source link

Leave a Comment