Governor’s Race 2017: Candidates Pledge to Fix NJ's Transportation Woes

“Audit every single thing that goes on in transit, whether it’s transportation or transit, and make sure that people are getting their money’s worth,” Guadagno said during a debate earlier this month in Newark. “People don’t believe they’re getting their money’s worth, and there’s no evidence that they are.”

Murphy on NJ Transit

For his part, Democrat Phil Murphy calls commuter transit one of his top three initiatives. He also points to the need for audits and increased oversight of the state’s transportation agencies. But the potential newcomer to elected office has also faulted Christie’s administration for not investing more heavily in mass transit and infrastructure, and Murphy is promising to create a dedicated revenue stream to help NJ Transit, casting transportation as an issue that’s vital to the state’s overall economic health.

"You're dealt a hand if you're a state (and) our hand is dealt," Murphy said during a debate at William Paterson University. "The fourth smallest state geographically in the country, densest state in the nation. We sit beside the largest market in the world, in New York, and one of the largest markets in the country, in Philadelphia. You'd think if you got one thing right it would be commuter rail."

“We have to get back to doing what we used to do really well in this state, prioritizing the economies that drove us,” Murphy said.

Between canceling the long-planned Access to the Region’s Core trans-Hudson commuter-rail tunnel to raising NJ Transit fares during each of his two terms in office, Christie, a Republican, has been widely criticized by state transportation advocates.

Serious infrastructure issues

The Christie administration is also handing off to the state’s next governor several serious and unresolved regional infrastructure issues. They include the uncertain future of the overcapacity Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, and the ongoing effort to convince President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress to fully fund the federal share of a major infrastructure initiative called the Gateway project, which is the latest effort to build a new trans-Hudson tunnel. Murphy also notes that the Hudson-Bergen light rail project has completely stalled — and doesn’t even enter Bergen County.

Guadagno’s platform on transportation includes a pledge to work closely with her fellow Republicans in Washington, D.C. to ensure the Gateway project, which could cost nearly $30 billion to complete, is ultimately funded. She’s said she’s also planning to look more closely at the role that ferry services can play in alleviating the state’s transportation challenges.

Guadagno on NJ Transit

At the heart of Guadagno’s approach to NJ Transit is not new spending, but a call for a wholesale audit of the agency, and a more aggressive emphasis on customer service. During the debate at William Paterson University, Guadagno suggested any employee who doesn’t have civil-service protection should expect to be asked to submit their resignations once she is sworn into office. And she said NJ Transit’s top brass will have to give out their cell-phone numbers to the agency’s customers to ensure they are held accountable.

“It is very important that we get this right,” Guadagno said about fixing NJ Transit. “In fact, I would say that second to property taxes, it is the number one problem that will be facing the (next) governor going forward.”

Her other proposals include maximizing state transportation revenues by exploring new opportunities for more advertising on trains and retail sales in train stations.

Guadagno’s commitment questioned

But Guadagno’s service alongside Christie has raised questions about her own commitment to the state’s commuters since she was never previously on record criticizing the governor over his transportation decisions, including the fare hikes that have been enacted during their tenure. Her transportation platform also includes a section entitled “Build NJ Transit Bus Terminal,” something that suggests she doesn’t fully understand the issue surrounding the long-planned replacement of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. That terminal is used by NJ Transit, but it’s run by the Port Authority, and many other public and private bus companies use it to shuttle people in and out of New York on a daily basis.

A spokesman for Guadagno did not respond yesterday to a request to clarify whether she is echoing the calls of transportation advocates to expedite the replacement of the Port Authority’s facility, or if she is instead promising to build an altogether new bus terminal that would serve only NJ Transit bus commuters.

Meanwhile, Murphy won the endorsement of an influential labor organization that represents thousands of NJ Transit employees earlier this year after he rolled out a transportation platform that called for an audit of both NJ Transit personnel and capital spending, as well as the hiring of an “emergency manager.” That person would be tasked with handling issues related to ongoing breakdowns involving infrastructure owned by Amtrak, but used daily by NJ Transit, including Penn Station in New York.

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany under former President Barack Obama, has also pledged to carve out a dedicated source of revenue for NJ Transit, whether it be a new tax or just the earmarking of an existing revenue stream. He’s also promising to work closely with the federal government and the Port Authority on plans to build the new rail tunnel and to replace the Port Authority’s aging bus terminal.

“We need real leadership, we need transparency at the Port Authority, and we need a governor who will punch at our weight to get our fair share,” Murphy said.

Murphy's other costly priorities

But even as Murphy is calling for increased investment in mass transit, he’ll likely face serious challenges coming up with enough money to do so, since he’s also promised to increase funding for other costly priorities, like K-12 education and the public-employee pension system. And while Christie was an early supporter of Trump and led a delegation to the White House last month of officials from New Jersey and New York to make an in-person pitch for Gateway funding, Murphy has been an outspoken critic of the president, and his overtures on federal infrastructure spending may not be warmly received.

Murphy also supported an increased gas tax last year as he discussed the issue of transportation investment after becoming the first official candidate in the contest to replace Christie. But Murphy ultimately opposed the deal that Christie and Democratic legislative leaders struck last year to renew the Transportation Trust Fund, which included a 23-cent gas-tax hike because he took issue with a series of tax cuts that Christie won as a concession from the legislative leaders. They included an ongoing phase-out of the estate tax. Murphy has also faulted Christie for canceling the ARC tunnel in 2010, a decision that allowed the governor to delay the gas-tax increase until after his 2013 re-election campaign.

Murphy’s platform on transportation spending includes a promise to make sure capital projects will be funded based on need and not political influence. He’s also proposed the creation of a state-run public bank that would be able to help municipalities fund small-scale infrastructure investments and save on borrowing costs.

Guadagno wants TTF audit

For her part, Guadagno opposed the gas-tax increase that was enacted by her own administration, but she has said she is not in favor of repealing it because the money is already being spent through the reauthorized TTF. Instead, Guadagno is calling for an audit of construction costs and other issues related to TTF spending, and she has suggested transportation agencies at all levels of government in New Jersey can better cooperate in order to find more savings.

Guadagno has also faulted a new board of political appointees that was to be seated to oversee TTF spending as part of last year’s reauthorization legislation, but the seats on that panel have yet to be filled. She’s also hoping officials from New York will agree to adopt a bistate reciprocal income-tax agreement that could bring in new revenue to the state Treasury to help boost infrastructure investment.

The two candidates also feuded over a comprehensive report on the state’s transportation issues that was released last month by the nonpartisan Fund for New Jersey. Among its many recommendations, the report — which noted the TTF remains deep in debt despite the gas-tax hike — suggested policymakers should determine the state’s overall transportation goals and be realistic about how much money is needed to achieve those goals. The report also presented some possible options for bringing in more revenue, among them increasing motor-vehicle fees and putting tolls on interstates.

Murphy responded to the report’s release by thanking its authors for their “insights,” but Guadagno immediately attacked, falsely claiming Murphy wholly agreed with the suggestion that new revenue should be raised through new tolls or increased fees.

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