NJ Transit Fare Hikes Put Focus Again on Funding

NEWARK (AP) -

As commuters in New Jersey prepare for rail and bus fare increases to be approved this week, the spotlight again has shifted to why the state’s transportation agency has had to dip into bus and rail riders’ pockets for the fifth time since 2002.

New Jersey Transit has said the increases, which average 9 percent, are needed to fill a $60 million budget gap that persisted even after the agency managed to cut $40 million internally.

Lawmakers have offered contrasting theories for what is to blame. Democrats fault Gov. Chris Christie for not coming up with a new revenue source for the state’s $1.6 billion Transportation Trust Fund. Republicans point to NJ Transit executive director Ronnie Hakim’s statement that the cost of retirement benefits is contributing to the budget gap. Gov. Chris Christie has been locked in a court battle with unions over public pensions.

If there is even a slender silver lining for commuters, it is that the proposed increases are on the low end historically. Nine of the last 11 fare increases dating back to 1980 have raised prices more than 9 percent, with four averaging more than 12 percent, including the most recent increase in 2010 that averaged 22 percent.

That likely won’t be much consolation for train commuters whose monthly ticket from Trenton to New York will rise from $440 to $480, or bus riders in Lakewood who will pay $448 per month to go into the city, up from $411.

“We have to keep transit affordable, it can’t become a luxury,” said Janna Chernetz of the advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “For some people it’s the only way around.”