Phil Murphy pledges more NJ Transit aid, potentially from new taxes
The Democratic gubernatorial candidate leading in the polls is pledging to increase state support for NJ Transit operations and says that could “potentially, potentially” require a tax hike.
Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany, laid out a series of short-term and long-term priorities for NJ Transit at a news conference at the Trenton train station. His long-term priorities start with restoring state operating assistance for the agency’s budget.
“NJ Transit needs dedicated funding that is outside the realm of the prevailing political winds, and I will explore those options,” Murphy said.
“A number of other states have found a funding source that’s dedicated, and that’s something that we’re trying to kick through and figure out how we could possibly mimic that,” he said.
Asked if that could mean new taxes, Murphy said, “Potentially, potentially.”
Murphy told reporters “there are a number of things on the table” as options for helping fund NJ Transit, and he embraced prospects mentioned by Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, such as franchise fees at toll-road rest stops, fees on developers in mass-transit heavy areas like Jersey City and Hoboken, and selling air rights over land such NJ Transit’s Lautenberg Station in Secaucus.
“Nothing like that has ever been tried here. That could represent hundreds of millions of dollars,” Gordon said of the air rights.
“There’s enormous development possibilities,” Murphy said, “smart development, green development opportunities, given the real estate portfolio under the control of NJ Transit, and that’s a particular area of opportunity.”
“Listen, I think if you pursue some of the things that Sen. Gordon just talked about, you could potentially find the source without having to raise any taxes,” Murphy said.
Transit has emerged as a recurring topic in the Democratic gubernatorial race, especially after derailments and delays that have hobbled NJ Transit and Amtrak.
Murphy called for Gov. Chris Christie to appoint an emergency manager to work with Amtrak on issues at Penn Station and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an immediate capital and personnel audit and more NJT personnel at stations to answer commuters’ questions. He pledged to add a commuter representative to the board.
Last week, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and former U.S. Treasury Department official Jim Johnson detailed their own transportation plans.
Here are links to each:
Plus links to the more limited details from their opponents:
“Phil Murphy’s talking about ideas that I’ve been advocating for for the last 15 years as chair of the transportation committee,” said Wisniewski, D-Middlesex.
Wisniewski said NJ Transit has been underfunded for a decade and that he’d increase its funding. Because a governor has line-item veto power, he said a tax hike isn’t required to do it.
“Well, you could certainly do that, but we have the resources within our state budget to do it. We just haven’t had an administration that’s made that a priority,” Wisniewski said.
The state budget subsidy to NJ Transit is currently $141 million and is projected at the same level next year. That’s up from a recent low of $33 million last year, but down from a peak of $358 million in 2009.
In addition to the budget subsidy, Christie currently directs $204 million to NJ Transit from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and $82 million from the Clean Energy Fund, for total support of $427 million. The agency’s operating budget is around $2.1 billion.
Murphy didn’t say precisely how much more money he would put toward NJ Transit.
“I haven’t added it up to the dime, but it’s a multi hundred million dollar proposition to get the singular state stipend or operating assistance back up to par,” he said.
Murphy said NJ Transit is too reliant on fares, which he said cover 57 percent of the agency’s operating budget. “That is an off-the-charts number relative to any other commuter rail system,” he said.
“It’s an overreliance on fares, and we have to find a better way,” Murphy said.
NJ Transit says nearly half of its revenues come from fares.
Murphy was joined at the Trenton train station by the two lawmakers co-chairing a joint legislative committee series of hearings into NJ Transit – Gordon and Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex.
McKeon said Murphy’s list of proposals “is maybe going to match or be some part of the list that we’re going to come up” as recommendations from the joint committee.
“We’re here because we need to hit the ground running,” McKeon said. “We can’t afford to wait seven months and then think about it. So we’re hopeful to produce a report. We’re hopeful to refer to the ambassador as the transportation governor.”
On the Republican side of the race, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli had planned to announce his NJ Transit proposals Thursday but postponed the event for a time in the near future.