NJ Transit is On the Wrong Track

NJ Transit gets $140 million in new funds, but our long-ailing rail system remains in peril.

Despite a fresh infusion of cash for NJ Transit, the system is short on funds for ongoing operations.
Despite a fresh infusion of cash for NJ Transit, the system is short on funds for ongoing operations.
Photo by Frances M. Roberts/Newscom

New Jersey’s commuter-train system is on shaky rails. For years, the system has been in need of crucial repairs, but funding has been scarce.

In March, at the urging of Governor Chris Christie, the state Legislature approved a $400 million supplemental appropriation for state infrastructure projects—including rail projects—to be made available before the current fiscal year ends on June 30.

In his earlier budget address, Christie declared: “This $400 million will allow the New Jersey Department of Transportation to deliver the largest construction program in state history starting right now.”

The supplemental appropriation—made possible by the recent 23-cent gas-tax hike—comes on top of $1.6 billion in regular transportation funding. The new funds are earmarked for the state Transportation Trust Fund, which is dedicated to repairs and improvements on roads and bridges, and mass transit infrastructure upgrades.

Of the $400 million supplemental appropriation, $260 million is allocated for road and bridge projects, and $140 million for New Jersey Transit, specifically to support capital projects for the rail system. The bill leaves it to the state Department of Transportation and NJ Transit to decide how to spend the new funds. Neither has publicly said which projects will take priority.

According to transportation experts, at least some of the funding will go toward the installation of a Positive Train Control safety system. PTC is designed to automatically stop a train before accidents occur. This might have prevented the September 29 rail accident in Hoboken, which took the life of a 34-year-old woman. Under a federal mandate, the system must be installed by December 2018.

But looking beyond this new appropriation, Christie’s budget proposal for 2018 includes only flat funding to help support NJ Transit’s ongoing operations.  That means NJT will continue to be strapped for cash to maintain its aging rails, trains and buses.  In an interview with NJ Spotlight, state Senator Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) described the state’s current mass-transit funding model as “a prescription for failure.”

Can the state spend more on mass transit? Not while it is facing a massive pension crisis. The Christie Administration has pledged a $650 million increase in state contributions to help keep the pension fund solvent.

And then there is the matter of the Gateway Program, the multi-billion-dollar project to build a new, two-track Hudson River rail tunnel; rehabilitate the existing, 107-year-old North River Tunnel that was damaged by Superstorm Sandy; and build a new high-span Portal Bridge to replace the aged and cranky movable bridge over the Hackensack River. These projects are to be jointly funded by New Jersey, New York and the federal government. But the so-called New Starts federal infrastructure grant program initiated by the Obama Administration is now endangered by President Donald Trump’s proposed budget—despite his avowal to invest in infrastructure.

“The Trump Administration has said that any New Starts funding that is not already locked in, will not happen,” explains Martin E. Robins, director emeritus at the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers. “Simply put, while the Trump Administration is not saying where and when any massive future infrastructure investment will be available and on what terms, by promising to eliminate the New Starts funding program, it has definitely thrown a wrench in the works for our region.”

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