Tunnels Aren’t the Only Vision for New Jersey Transit in the Governor’s Race

Philip D. Murphy, a Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey, stood in front of the Trenton train station, with a New Jersey Transit train that had been delayed 30 minutes behind him, and offered a starkly candid assessment: The state has a transportation crisis, and a new tax might be the only way to tackle it.

“Potentially, potentially,” Mr. Murphy said in response to a question from a reporter, though he stressed that a tax would be one of many options on the table.

But the moment underscored how the misery that so many travelers have endured in recent weeks — with the likelihood that things will get worse this summer when Amtrak closes tracks at Pennsylvania Station for repairs — has thrust public transportation to the forefront among those vying to become New Jersey’s next leader.

Voters say addressing the state’s transit and infrastructure woes is high on their priority list. In a recent poll from Quinnipiac University, 84 percent of likely voters said they supported adding a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York. And 65 percent said they disapproved of the way Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, was handling transportation issues.

During Mr. Christie’s nearly eight-year tenure, a state subsidy to New Jersey Transit, the nation’s third-busiest railroad, was cut by over 90 percent. The governor famously stopped an earlier plan to build a new Hudson River tunnel, even as constant problems plagued the aging rail infrastructure between New York and New Jersey.

The candidates have taken note, laying out extensive plans to claim the mantle of “transportation governor.” And the issue is likely to take center stage at the first debate of the primary campaign, which will be held on Tuesday night at Stockton University near Atlantic City.

In a race that features two clear party favorites and a vast field of hopefuls jockeying to distinguish themselves amid voter apathy, Democratic and Republican candidates share some common ground when it comes to infrastructure: They think the Gateway project to build new rail tunnels under the Hudson is vital and say Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal both need significant overhauls.

They also agree that an audit of New Jersey Transit should be undertaken to identify waste and mismanagement and that there should be no more political appointees to transit agencies or panels in the state. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a Republican candidate, called the appointment process “the worst public policy to come out of Trenton in a generation.”

From there, however, their plans diverge.

Mr. Murphy, the leading candidate in polls, called on Mr. Christie to take immediate steps, such as installing a manager to oversee the relationship among the state, Amtrak, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He says the New Jersey Transit app should be updated to include push alerts on delays and to identify where trains are, similar to what’s available for New Jersey Transit buses.

He also called for an indefinite honoring of New Jersey Transit tickets on the PATH train system and Hudson River ferries. (After two recent derailments, such a cross-honoring system cost New Jersey Transit nearly $1 million.)

For longer-term solutions, Mr. Murphy said, dedicated state funding for the transit agency needs to be restored, an expensive proposal that might require a new tax. But there are other possibilities, he said, including shifting budget priorities, establishing a public bank to invest in smaller infrastructure projects and using New Jersey Transit’s real estate assets for development.

Ms. Guadagno was a vocal opponent of an increase in the gas tax, which helps pay for transportation projects, and instead links transit financing to her call for a sweeping examination of spending in Trenton.

She also wants to bring all agencies responsible for infrastructure under one roof, a plan she claims would save more than $100 million. And, like some of the Democratic candidates, she is in favor of expanding transit options to include more ferries and express trains.

Her Republican rival, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, also called for an agency reorganization, though he offers more detail: bringing together the Department of Transportation, New Jersey Transit and the Motor Vehicle Commission and using the $1.4 billion generated from fees for drivers’ licenses, vehicle registrations and other regulations for infrastructure spending, rather than putting it into what he calls the state’s “black hole,” the general fund.

He also wants to negotiate a new tax agreement with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York that would tax wages based on where people live, not where they work, similar to the agreement New Jersey has with Pennsylvania, and then using tax proceeds to improve infrastructure.

Jim Johnson, a Democratic candidate, was the first to unveil a transit and infrastructure plan in late April, after spending days experiencing with fellow travelers the disruptions triggered by the derailments. He then convened transportation panels before rolling out his recommendations.

His plan is centered on a “unified vision for a transit system” that would include mandating that organizations such as New Jersey Transit and the Department of Transportation share data and communicate better. Regarding new projects, Mr. Johnson said he would push to complete a long-delayed rail line between Glassboro and Camden as part of a reinvestment in transit infrastructure in the southern part of the state.

To pay for his ideas, he argues, his plan to cut waste, fraud and abuse through an ethics overhaul as well as a tax reform proposal would help generate new financing for New Jersey Transit. Mr. Johnson has also promoted the idea of “predictive maintenance,” making repairs before they become a crisis and costs balloon, similar to a process put in place in Illinois.

John S. Wisniewski, who has focused on transportation issues during his roughly two decades in the Assembly, points to an amendment he introduced twice over the past three years to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which finances public transit and highway projects, as a way to pay for improvements.

He calls for renovating train stations near affordable housing, including adding accessibility; expanding rail capacity to include a line that would connect Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex Counties; and allowing New Jersey Transit to operate as a developer as well as a landlord to help produce new revenue.

He also cites his experience during the investigation into the lane closings near the George Washington Bridge as evidence that the Port Authority, which operates the bridge, should focus solely on interstate transportation — bridges, the PATH trains and tunnels — and not on being a “landlord” in New York or New Jersey, a departure from his vision for New Jersey Transit.

The airports, which the Port Authority also oversees, would be better served by a separate agency or a private company, Mr. Wisniewski said.

For some candidates, the problems on the rails are both personal and part of their campaign. Ms. Guadagno took the train every day from Little Silver to Newark when she worked as a federal prosecutor. Mr. Johnson still relies on the PATH train to travel to New York.

Mr. Murphy, through a spokesman, declined to say when he had last used public transportation, saying only, “This is about making the system work for the hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans who depend on N.J. Transit.”

Mr. Wisniewski, who used to take train from South Amboy to Newark every day and still counts rail as his favorite means of getting to New York, has recently had to change course because of the countless delays and cancellations.

“I had a meeting recently, and candidly, because of the difficulties, I couldn’t afford to be late,” he said with a sigh. “I had to drive in.”

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