It's official. This morning, during a meeting in Newark, New Jersey Transit's Board of Directors approved the highest transit fare hike in history for train riders, with a 25 percent increase and service reductions. Bus riders, while spared a full 25 percent increase, will still face a 10 percent increase and service reductions.
For the 10 percent of New Jersey residents who use mass transit to get to work, that means they could pay up to $1,000 more per year for a monthly train pass. It means people could pay up to $10 more per train trip to get to New York, or face up to an $88 monthly hike if you're a regular train commuter.
Train and buses are the greenest way to get around New Jersey — but not if you can't afford the ticket. Riders are going to vote with their feet — this decision is going to mean more traffic on the roads and more air pollution.
Meanwhile, Gov. Christie has promised not to raise the state gas tax — which is the third-lowest in the country and hasn't been raised since 1988.
With those price increases, getting back on the road will start to look much more appealing for transit riders. And for every commuter who decides to drive to work instead of taking New Jersey Transit, it will add an average of 4,800 pounds of global warming pollution to our air each year.
In 2008, New Jersey residents saved 137 million gallons of gas by riding public transit — reducing as much global warming pollution as if we'd taken 239,000 cars off the road.
We need to keep this momentum going of increased transit ridership, not move backward to even greater dependence on gas-guzzling cars. Today's decision will mean less people are going to choose the train over their cars.
The system-wide service cuts, including longer wait times on bus routes and every train line, will worsen commutes for all transit users but will have a disproportionate impact on bus riders. Nearly two-thirds of New Jersey Transit users are bus riders, many with incomes below the state median. While spared a historic hike, a 10 percent increase will still hurt working families, students, seniors, and people with disabilities.
Every $1 billion invested in transit operations creates 41,000 jobs and transit fare increases hurt those who least can afford it. For example, one in every four rides on NJTransit is taken on a bus in Newark, and even a 10 percent fare increase will cost a bus-riding family of three over $150 a year.
Over the past decade, NJ Transit ridership has increased at twice the rate of driving, even though the latest fare hike will mean that fares have increased by 68 percent since 2000 while the state gas tax has not gone up since 1988. These cuts drive this economic and environmental progress backward by forcing more people to drive and creating increased hardship for those without cars who have no transportation alternatives.
Transportation advocates had called on the state to use a portion of stimulus funding to avoid the harsh impacts of the transit hike. Congress has authorized states to use 10 percent of their stimulus transit funding for operating costs. Many cities, including Seattle, Chicago, Washington D.C, and others, have taken advantage of this provision to protect riders from fare hikes or service cuts.
As of December 31, 2009, NJTransit had spent $125 million of the $422 million it was promised under the stimulus. Using $42 million of the remaining funds could stop the fare hikes and service cuts for the short term.
Gov. Christie is trying to balance the state's budget woes on the backs of transit riders. This decision is only going to hurt NJ Transit's long-term ridership, and doesn't address the need for a long-term dedicated source of transit funding.
Doug O'Malley is Environment New Jersey's field director