Will Phil Murphy Get NJ Transit Back on Track?

Tri-State Transportation Campaign New Jersey Director Janna Chernetz discusses the transportation policy challenges and opportunities facing the state's governor-elect.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Adam E. Moreira
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Adam E. Moreira

On Tuesday, New Jersey voters elected Phil Murphy to replace Governor Chris Christie. He inherits a transit system that has suffered tremendously under eight years of mismanagement.

One of Christie’s first acts in office was killing the trans-Hudson ARC tunnel project, heralding an eight-year run of transit and transportation malpractice. Under Christie, transit projects were raided to pay for roads, capital funding was diverted to cover operating expenses, fares were hiked while service deteriorated, and ridership fell. NJ Transit, regarded as one of the better transit agencies in the nation when Christie took office, was dogged by high turnover and allegations of patronage and incompetence in senior management positions.

The core tenet of Christie’s transportation policy was to never raise the state gas tax to fund New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). Hence the multi-billion-dollar transfer from the ARC project. He was finally forced to relent last year, but not before basic bridge and road work was halted across the state.

Murphy ran hard against Christie’s mismanagement of the state’s transportation system. Now the question is whether he’ll deliver better transit service and safer streets for his constituents.

Streetsblog spoke to Tri-State Transportation Campaign New Jersey Director Janna Chernetz about what Murphy must do to address transit and transportation challenges in the wake of Christie’s two-term disaster. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re coming off eight years under Chris Christie. What’s his legacy on transportation?

Where do we begin? The Christie administration failed New Jersey when it came to transportation. In his first year, he canceled the ARC project citing cost overruns, but he didn’t make an earnest attempt to find an alternative that would resolve our cross-Hudson rail challenges.

Coming into the Christie administration, it was known that the TTF was going bankrupt. Last year, the gas tax was increased because the TTF literally ran out of money. Every dollar was going to be spent on debt, so there was no money to be spent on projects.

Over his tenure Christie pasted together a very gimmick-filled capital program with raids and refinancing, but without a real long-term funding solution. Just one-shot gimmicks to get us through from one year to the next. That resulted in a lot of transportation needs being unmet in terms of necessary rehabilitation projects. Last year’s 23-cent gas tax increase is really not going to get New Jersey to where it needs to be.

We’re definitely not out of the woods. Our problem with funding transportation in New Jersey is not resolved. It’s just status quo at this point.

Given that, what transportation challenges does Murphy face coming into office in January?

There are a lot of them.

NJ Transit has a number of issues, not exclusively linked to funding. NJ Transit gets money from the TTF for capital needs, but their operating budget is so deficient that they have to transfer money from capital to operating. That really ties the agency’s hands, and stifles its ability to do much-needed capital improvements and hurts long-term planning.

There’s also staffing issues. Talent is leaving, but new talent is not coming in. After Superstorm Sandy and the 2014 Super Bowl, there was a clear indication that there were problems with some of the leadership at NJ Transit, and the executive director stepped down. Then we had an interim director, and then Ronnie Hakim came in. Then she left to go to MTA, and we had another interim director. Then there was an international search for a new executive director, William Crosby was tapped to come in, and at the last minute he did not. And now you have Steve Santoro up top.

There’s a lack of consistent, long-term leadership in the agency, and that doesn’t bode well.

Separately, complete streets has to be reinvigorated in NJDOT. You know, New Jersey is a Pedestrian Focus State. We have a very high rate of pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries, and this needs to be a priority of this administration. NJ DOT has a policy of “Toward Zero Deaths,” but that’s not going to be enough to actually move the needle on pedestrian and bike safety.

What are the political challenges of finding that dedicated funding source for NJ Transit?

NJ Transit’s operating budget is not very diverse. A majority of their operating budget comes from passenger fares — about 51 percent. And that’s high in comparison to similar agencies. So there’s a lot of pressure to fund operations on the backs of riders, which is why we saw five fare increases since 2000, most recently under Governor Christie.

The other source of revenue for operations are rental leases and retail, which is very small — just a few hundred million out of a $2 billion operating budget.

Then you have the state contributions, the direct state subsidy, which has significantly decreased under Christie, as much as 90 percent at one point in comparison to previous administrations. There has been a slight increase since, but that increase still brings us only to 50 percent of the level [of state subsidy under previous administrations]. The other funding pots that Christie has dipped into: the Turnpike Authority toll money and the [Clean Energy Fund]. Those are funding pots that were never intended to be used to fund transit. It’s state money, so the governor says he’s increased state funding for NJ Transit, but it’s not a direct subsidy.

It’s hard to run a transit agency when it’s subject to the political budget process every year and there’s no guarantee how much money they’re going to get. NJ Transit is planning year-to-year, and that is very troubling for the agency and the economic growth of our state.

We need to be looking at diversifying the funding sources, getting creative, and looking at ways where we can make the agency more efficient and bring in revenue at the same time.

Getting [the operating budget] stable allows capital money to remain for NJ Transit’s capital needs. And there are a lot of them. We need to have a robust capital budget and a robust operating budget if we’re going to have the transportation agency that New Jersey needs to keep everybody moving.

If you’re Murphy, what’s your first transportation decision as governor?

The transit system needs safety upgrades and the state’s in desperate need of transit expansion, both bus and rail, but you can’t fund either when the money’s simply not there. There are a lot of capital needs, and we need to keep the money there.

What the governor can do in the meantime is make sure that direct state subsidy meets the needs of NJ Transit’s operating budget, or at least comes close to avoid the hefty transfers from capital. Close to $8 billion has been transferred out since this practice began in 1990. That’s a lot of money that could have gone to capital projects.

What about the overall transportation challenges facing New Jersey?

I hope Governor Murphy takes a holistic approach to transportation, and looking at how transportation affects New Jersey residents’ lives on multiple levels.

We’ve had a very auto-centric approach to transportation in this state in the past couple of decades. We need to step back and take a look at what transportation policy means to everything in the state. It’s improving residents’ health, it’s about being out there and being active and reducing chronic diseases. It’s about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and asthma rates. Getting people walking and biking and using mass transit and not have their vehicles out there causing congestion. It helps downtown growth, it helps people access jobs.

Car ownership is very expensive in this state. Do people have other options besides vehicles? Do they have transit options? Do they have safe options for biking and walking?

If Governor-elect Murphy can step back and look at it more holistically, by linking transportation to things other than the car and getting from point A to point B, I think you’ll start to see other ways the state’s going to improve. I don’t think it’s a very heavy lift, it’s just getting the right people in the right places making those policy decisions.