Post #100 on the Transit Pass!

It is not news that economic downturns are particularly hard on transit, just like all government services.  At the moment that affordable government services and assistance are most needed is also the time when government can least afford to provide them.

The voters of New Jersey reap what they sow.  They dumped their CEO-governor Jon Corzine for the Republican challenger who promised the unattainable Holy Grail of New Jersey politics, lower property taxes.  Now in office, Chris Christie has dealt with New Jersey’s budget deficit by cutting services and refusing to raise taxes, on anyone.  Of course, when you don’t raise taxes you can still effectively tax many people by offering fewer governmental services.  Therefore, Joe Millionaire is barely affected by the situation but Jane Minimum-Wage is put into an even more difficult situation because suddenly day care, transit, health care, etc. are less available and more expensive.  Perhaps that is good politics for a Republican, but it is certainly bad governance.

Governor Chris Christie in February said he would cut the state’s $296 million annual subsidy for NJ Transit by 11 percent, or $33 million, to help close a $2.2 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year ending June 30. Christie, 47, a Republican who took office in January on a pledge not to raise taxes, introduced a $29.3 billion budget last month that contains $10 billion in spending reductions.

Christie, in a March 17 interview, said “there’s no way to fix” NJ Transit’s budget woes without raising fares. The governor also said he supported increasing transit fees over putting tolls on free roads in New Jersey including Interstates 78, 80, 195 and 295.

Specifically, Christie has cut NJ Transit’s funding by 11%.  In response, NJ Transit has been forced to raise fares; increasing the cost of local bus and light rail travel by 10% and commuter bus and train travel by a hefty 25%.  I used NJ Transit’s commuter rail for a full year when I worked in New York.  At that time my 35-40 minute ride cost $198 for a monthly pass.  While most people in my hometown probably can absorb the 25% increase without too much difficulty.  However, along the same route are a number of towns with poorer towns, such as Paterson (median 2000 household income: $32,778) and Garfield (median 2000 household income: $42,748), where the residents will have much greater difficulty absorbing such a fare hike.

A monthly pass from Paterson to New York Penn Station is currently $166.  A 25% hike will bring that price to $207.50, or an extra $498 a year, and that does not even include the costs of a monthly pass for the bus or subway in New York City, given that most jobs are not within walking distance of Penn Station.  With the price of a subway pass included a person from Paterson could be required to spend $3,450 a year for transit.  That is simply outrageous when your household income is $32,778.

Governor Christie hasn’t lowered taxes, he has impaired the rights of people throughout the state to procure employment and provide effectively for their families.  For the sake of saving some very wealthy residents the pain of having to pay a a little more in income tax the lower class has been implicitly taxed by virtue of being poor.  Transit justice exists and this is not it.  Governor Christie lacks that sense of empathy that Obama has been smeared for.  He has prioritized the needs of suburban drivers over transit commuters, continuing our history of poor transit priorities.

T sign

There is some nasty and brutish politicking going on in Boston regarding the leadershi of the MBTA, as Governor Patrick’s team tries to force out Romney appointee, General Manager Daniel Grabauskas.  I am in no position to make any meaningful commentary on the politics of the moment, but I am struck by how much of the controversy revolves around T financing.

The Authority has over $5 billion in debt, most of it loaded on from the Big Dig.  One third of the T’s annual $1.5 billion budget goes to debt payments.  That is insane.  Debt has caught up to the organization and now the T is “considering” levying a 19.5% fare increase and service reductions.

Here is where my opinion begins; it is ridiculous for public transit organizations to have to finance their own construction projects.  Public transportation organizations have a hard enough time financing day-to-day operations based on public subsidies and low-cost fares.  Government pays for road building without expecting car drivers to be saddled with debt.  The transit riding public and the organizations it trusts should not be saddled with this debt either.

When building new rails,  constructing new stations, investing in brand new types of vehicles, the financing should come from the state, not from the transit institution (that is without a dramatic change in how agencies are financed).  Maintenance, repairs and general upkeep and improvements should intelligently be paid for by agency budgets.  However, to burden our transportation agencies with billions of dollars in debt from construction and new projects serves neither the agency nor the ridership and the greater areas and economies that depend on such transit adequately.