On July 15, NJ Transit will vote on a proposal for a nine percent fare increase. Thursday, the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee was scheduled to consider a move to require that a separate state agency evaluate and determine whether future hikes are necessary and fair.

NJ Transit train (Townsqaure Media)

A NJ Transit committee is expected to approve a 9 percent fare increase on Wednesday.

The bill (A-2587), which is scheduled for debate, would expand the powers of the Division of Rate Counsel by requiring the division, within 90 days after receiving notice from the NJ Transit Corporation of any fare increase plan, to evaluate it. NJ Transit would have to provide any information requested by the division in the course of its evaluation. Before implementing any fare hike, NJ Transit would have to consider the evaluation and determination and respond to any objection to the fare increase proposal.

"It doesn't look like they would have the ability stop it (a fare hike). They would just have the ability to weigh in and be an objective third party to say whether or not it was fair," said Cathleen Lewis, regional director of Public Affairs and Government Relations with AAA Northeast. "To have additional people weigh in and to have somebody whose job it is to make sure that the rates are fair is not a bad thing."

Despite the fact that A-2587 would not allow the division to stave off or reject future fare increases, others support the measure sponsored by Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton). Doug O'Malley, co-founder of the NJ for Transit Coalition and director of Environment New Jersey is one of the advocates.

"Obviously having more eyes on NJ Transit's budget is a good thing and explicitly having the Division of Rate Counsel to be analyzing whether a fare inrceasse should happen is a good thing," O'Malley said.

Faced with a $120 million budget deficit, NJ Transit cut overhead and found savings, but it still wasn't enough to plug the gap and that was the reason for the current fare hikes said NJ Transit executive director Ronnie Hakim during an Assembly Budget Committee hearing in early May.

"We've been working hard developing more than $40 million in savings and efficiencies," Hakim said. "Even so we still face a (budget) gap of about $56 million."

Budget panel vice chairman, Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Thorofare) questioned the fare increase and called it a strain on commuters.

"You're agency is now going to be asking ratepayers to pay essentially a 30 percent increase from 2010 to 2016, well ahead of the cost of living," Burzichelli told Hakim. "I want to say this loud and clear; you have no problems that money won't solve."