Budget Season Is Here

Checking the state legislature’s home page as this issue goes to press, we found that the annual Senate and Assembly budget hearings have been announced; the first on March 14th, the final on April 25th. Each year the legislature spends much of this season hearing from constituents about particular budget concerns, suggestions for more, less, or redirected spending, all based on the governor’s February budget address (this year presented on Tuesday, February 28th—the last possible legal date). As usual, we will be testifying at both an Assembly and a Senate hearing, looking to ensure that transportation dollars are spent less on widening highways and more on improving public transportation across the state, particularly our particular focus, NJT rail service.

Report from the Chair, March/April 2023

The biggest train-related story since our last issue of the Railgram has to be the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. We note that the problem was compounded by a slow EPA response that allowed the corporation’s request to burn off toxic chemicals—possibly necessary to avoid an uncontrolled explosion, but done in such a way that the burn was incomplete and unknown chemicals, possibly dioxins, were released. Worse, the rather delayed air-quality monitoring did not include testing for the deadly dioxins, but only for their precursors.

Sadly, this just further damages the public image of railroads, building on railroad workers’ almost-strike of early December of last year. The president shut down the strike, in the interest of avoiding supply-chain issues, but it was surely a controversy that damaged the public image of rail.

Continue Reading Report from the Chair, March/April 2023

NJT Board Members: Wake Up!

Portal North Bridge Is Out of Money Already!

Stop the presses, NJ Transit Board members, please wake up! The $1.56 billion Portal North Bridge construction contract you approved unanimously at a special meeting last Oct. 12 is a whopping $340 million (28%) over the $1.22 billion contract cost in the PNB Project capital budget! The entire Project Capital Cost is now higher than any amount anticipated by either NJT or the Federal Transit Administration, $32 million over the $1.96 billion identified as the worst case imaginable for which 20% cost overrun funds were identified. In effect, the PNB Project capital budget is out of money before the first spade is turned.

Continue Reading NJT Board Members: Wake Up!

11 Bus Lines Targeted for Cutbacks

As a result of a first-of-its-kind exercise for NJ Transit, the agency is proposing cuts in 11 bus lines, which NJT says are little-used compared to the majority of its bus services; Mike Frassinelli reported the proposed cuts in the Star-Ledger (May 15).  NJT’s review of its bus operations involved an ”inward look” using metrics to find ways to better allocate its resources; the new initiative is said to stem from NJT’s “Scorecard” user-input survey program.  The 11 bus routes targeted average 14 customers per hour, compared to the systemwide average of 24.  Also, the average subsidy per passenger on these routes is a whopping $4.87, compared to a systemwide average of $1.29.  Five bus lines would be eliminated completely: routes 42, 43, 75, 78, and 93; six others would have services “adjusted”: for example, the lightly-used University Heights branch of route 258 would be eliminated, but the rest of the 258 service would be unaffected.  Savings of $3.1 million are forecast from the changes; but $1 million would be reinvested in new projects, including 24-hour bus service between Newark Penn Station, Newark Airport, and Elizabeth.  Public hearings are scheduled for the cuts on June 12 at One Penn Plaza, Newark (11 a.m. – 2 p.m.) and at the Wayne Municipal Complex on June 13 (5-8 p.m.)

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that coordinated bus and rail service is essential to an effective transportatioin network.  All too often, NJT bus and rail services are not coordinated as far as schedules and fare schemes; attention to this could improve ridership on both rail and bus lines.

Menendez Calls for Bipartisanship on Transport Bill

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has called for bipartisanship rather than politics as Washington lawmakers struggle to come up with a compromise on a new transportation bill to fund highway and transit operations and improvements.  According to reporting by Malia Rulon Herman in the Daily Record (May 9), Menendez is one of 47 lawmakers from both Houses and both parties who met for the first time on May 8 to try to forge a compromise between House and Senate versions of the bill.  Under the Senate version, New Jersey would get the highest public transportation funding ever, $519 million per year, an increase of $63 million; the total funding, including highway, would be $1.5 billion for New Jersey.  Public transportation funding continues to be controversial, with Republicans wanting to slash dedicated mass transit funding.  Currently, 2.86¢ of the 18.4¢ per gallon federal gasoline tax is reserved for mass transit.  Menendez said that he was committed to protecting mass-transit funding.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that a stable, long-term funding source for transit capital and operating budgets is essential if public transportation is to survive, improve, and satisfy increasing demand for service.

Most NJT Fares Still Highest, Even After Fare Increase in New York

Despite fare increases by New York’s Metropolitan Transportaiton Authority (the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and local transit in New York City) that went into effect at the end of 2010, most New Jersey riders still pay more for a train ride than their counterparts elsewhere.
A study by Lackawanna Coalition member John Bobsin indicates that all rail fares on New Jersey Transit (except for the Atlantic City Rail Line, where fares are lower) are higher than comparable fares in such other commuter-rail cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.  This holds for monthly commutation fares as well as all single-trip fares.
With the recent fare increase in New York, single-trip fares at peak commuting times are slightly higher than in New Jersey.  At other times (midday, evenings and weekends), fares in New York are substantially lower, due to last year’s increase of 47% or more on “off-peak” rail fares on NJT.
The Lackawanna Coalition has questioned the cost-effectiveness of such a large fare increase, especially at times when trains have room for more riders and highways are not crowded, and has called for a return of discounted off-peak rail fares in New Jersey.