Gov. Gaslight refuses to address the NJ Transit funding fiasco responsibly | Editorial

Posted May 12, 2019

It’s getting harder to discern whether Gov. Murphy is delusional or just believes that the rest of us can’t understand basic math.

He has decided that 1.1 percent is an adequate funding boost for NJ Transit in the next fiscal year, and with his budget due in six weeks, this doesn’t exactly conform with the overwhelming consensus that the agency is already past its break-glass moment.

Lest anyone forget, Murphy promised transportation would be the greatest priority of his administration and that he would get NJT turned around “if it kills me.”

He ordered an audit that was illuminating if also predictable, one that described NJ Transit funding as “inadequate, uncertain, and unsustainable,” and promised the report would not “collect dust.”

He vowed to stop raiding the capital funds to pay for operations, which was something he had bashed Chris Christie for doing, and rightly so.

And now, after a year of annulments, delays, staff shortages, and customer outrage, the governor’s response is to add a piddling $25 million to an operating budget of $2.34 billion?

You may assert your right to be flummoxed on this one, particularly when you consider that the 1.1 percent increase is smaller than the inflation rate, which means he is addressing a crisis with what amounts to a spending cut.

Murphy dispatched transportation commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti to the Senate Budget Committee Thursday to explain this, and her company line was pure poetry: “We don’t want you to think we’re not asking for more money because we don’t think we could use it,” she told lawmakers. “We’re trying to say, ‘We’re going to take what you give us and we’re going to make the best of every dollar.’”

Loretta Weinberg, the Senate Majority Leader, rehinged her jaw and replied, “I can’t say that often in my long years in the Legislature that I’ve appeared before a committee on the opposite side of the bureaucracy trying to convince them they need more money.”

Actually, they need piles, and what Murphy proposes is “plainly inadequate,” as the doyen of rail travel, Martin Robins, put it.

What would they use it for? Manpower, for starters: As of last month, there were 442 vacancies, and they are 50 engineers shy of what NJT executive director Kevin Corbett calls a “good” number (400). Improved service in high-volume routes would be welcome. The bus dispatching system uses radio equipment found in pawn shops. The HR computer system is so bad that job applicants use pencils.

And then there’s this anvil hovering over the agency: It projects a $138 million budget hole for operations in three years.

Thursday’s debate was largely about funding sources. It is good that the state’s direct subsidy has risen. It is bad that they still need to raid the Clean Energy Fund for $82 million and the Turnpike Authority for $129 million. Weinberg says the Turnpike diversion should be higher – it’s $25 million less than last year – and given that the Turnpike is in fine shape and the railroad is in triage, this is no time to trim back on the diversion.

(Budget committee chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) favors the end of Turnpike diversions, which raised Weinberg’s hackles: “My Budget Chair is a little ill-informed on that issue, and I’ll certainly help straighten him out,” she said, noting NJT’s labor costs alone will rise $35 million this year.)

But worst of all, Murphy is still filching $460 million from the agency’s capital budget to fund operations, a practice that Nat Bottigheimer of Regional Plan Association says is akin to “raiding the college fund to pay for groceries.”

This fiscal crisis is not something abstract, or being played out in a board room.

If you are one of NJ Transit’s 910,000 weekday customers, you know this is where the rubber meets the road.

The 4-percent increase Murphy gave NJT last year caused nary a ripple, and the Transit Governor has yet to produce an adequate funding strategy for the nation’s third-largest commuter railroad. This needs a real fix, one fueled by real money, and time is running out.

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