Transportation groups are warning of gridlock ahead if Congress doesn’t provide billions more in aid to transit agencies.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said public transit faces an existential crisis. He noted NJ Transit’s revenue from passenger fares is down 90% and worries bus and rail cuts would push people into cars and onto already crowded roads.

“Without federal help, our buses and commuter rail would be at risk of being decimated. Fares could rise dramatically, and transit service as we know it would cease to exist,” Sifuentes said.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said transit was among the topics in a hourlong conversation he had Tuesday morning with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“We have got to be fighting for about $25 billion in funding to help recoup the losses that we’re seeing to our transit agencies,” Booker said.

That’s slightly less than the $32 billion agencies are seeking but an increase over the roughly $16 billion included in the CARES Act, which the House of Representatives sought to repeat in its follow-up HEROES Act. That bill hasn’t been taken up in the Senate, and there’s no consensus on the next legislation.

Booker said New Jersey’s transportation and infrastructure were in crisis before the pandemic but that it’s mounting exponentially now.

“The CARES Act funds that we were able to win, through a lot of fighting and negotiation, will only keep them solvent for about five maybe to eight more months,” Booker said.

Kate Slevin, senior vice president for state programs and advocacy for the Regional Plan Association, said the financial problems facing NJ Transit greatly threaten the state and national economy.

“Without federal aid, base fares on Transit could skyrocket and projects that impact the entire state, not to mention the entire Northeast Corridor, could be jeopardized,” Slevin said.

Unions for transit workers also want the eventual legislation considered by Congress to include provisions for personal protective equipment and sanitization rules.

Orlando Riley, chairman of the Amalgamated Transit Union New Jersey State Council, said almost 400 of the union’s members have tested positive for coronavirus and 10 have died.

“It’s pretty clear that this will be a long fight,” Riley said. “We want to make sure that our ATU members have enough PPE, that our buses are fitted with the proper protective barriers, our front-line workers are compensated accordingly and that we do face unfortunate layoffs.”

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Booker said he wants the next coronavirus relief bill to include whistle-blower protections, safety precautions and hazard pay for frontline workers.

“This is to me a jugular issue that we have to make a stand for,” Booker said.

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

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