TRENTON – More than $3.5 billion in toll money will be redirected to NJ Transit over the next seven years, under an agreement approved by New Jersey Turnpike Authority commissioners Tuesday.

Turnpike Authority executive director John Keller said the agreement generally reflects what was discussed when tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway were increased last year to support an estimated $16 billion long-term construction program.

“It is a funding agreement that was recognized when the toll increase was first envisioned, and we feel comfortable that we can make these payments and be a good steward of the transportation system within all of New Jersey,” Keller said.

Over the past five years, the authority has shifted a combined $820 million to NJ Transit – an average of $164 million a year, ranging from $129 million to $204 million. That will climb to an average $510 million over the next seven years, including a $746 million payment in fiscal 2023 alone.

That 2023 payment includes $296 million that was put into reserve from what had originally been expected to be transferred in fiscal 2021 and 2022 at the time the toll hikes were approved. The 2023 base payment of $450 million then inches up $15 million each year through fiscal 2028.

Environmentalists were glad to see the funding commitment is being fulfilled, representing a step toward a stable source of dedicated funding for NJ Transit.

“But still nowhere near what the authority could afford to pay, particularly without the highway expansion, or what NJ Transit needs,” said John Reichman, head of the Blue Wave NJ environment committee.

“This payment is so crucial because right now New Jersey Transit is in a moment of crisis,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. He said more federal aid is coming and welcome. “But those payments will only be a shot in the arm. They will not last forever.”

“We strongly support that money going to mass transit from Turnpike Authority,” said David Pringle, a consultant for Clean Water Action. “Doing so means more mass transit, more jobs because investing in transit creates more jobs than investing in new highways. It also means less traffic, less capital needs and less pollution.”

Steve Carrellas, director of government and public affairs for the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, said “highways are needed, even more than ever” and that the authority should put its own needs and the interests of bondholders ahead of subsidizing NJ Transit.

“The authority is better off preparing itself to better service vehicular travel while also keeping in mind that future commuting habits will be significantly different for the remainder of the pandemic and after,” Carrellas said.

Carrellas scoffed at the idea that expanding financial support for mass transit would lead to a reduction of cars on the road.

“That tired old trope has been foisted on the public for decades, and it’s seldom if ever true,” he said. “And with the pandemic forever changing our world, you can’t count on transit rebounding any time soon and reaching pre-pandemic ridership levels.”

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NJ Transit said it anticipates farebox revenue won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until at least after 2025, if not later.

In the two years before the pandemic, NJ Transit registered more than 260 million passenger trips a year. That fell to 205 million in fiscal 2020, which included the first 15 weeks after stay-at-home orders began, and a projected 98 million in the current fiscal year.

Passenger revenues used to cover around 43% of the agency’s operating expenses. This fiscal year, it’s projected that it will cover 10%.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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