NJ Transit; Don't Let Them Strand You

The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP: www.nj-arp.org) is a rail/bus advocacy group founded in 1980 by New Jersey transit users wanting a greater say in their transit future.  I joined the organization in 1985 and became its President in 2005. We are a “thorn” in NJ Transit’s side…and with good reason.

As you have seen, heard or even experienced yourself, daily cancellations of trains and buses have been routine for the past two years. Why is that? There are many reasons. Here are but a few:

  1. NJ Transit was established in 1979 when all the New Jersey passenger railroads (Penn Central, Erie-Lackawanna, Jersey Central Lines, etc.) all went “belly up” and left the state without any rail service anywhere. The state Department of Transportation (DOT) stepped in to run trains for several months until NJ Transit was created. But, it was that creation that would lead to future problems. While set up as a supposedly independent corporation, NJ Transit was a creation of state government with the DOT Commissioner acting as Chairperson of the Board. The Board was appointed by the Governor and NJ Transit’s operating budget was a combination of farebox recovery and state subsidy. The set-up of the DOT Commissioner being Chair of NJ Transit was, and continues to be, an inherent conflict of interest.
  2. During good economies, investments were made in NJ Transit. The creation of the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) guaranteed funding into NJ Transit. The gasoline tax increase of 1982 assured NJ Transit of adequate funds to keep it going, or so it was thought.
  3. As automobiles became more fuel efficient and the TTF started to be raided by Governors, both Democratic and Republican, for general budget purposes, fares began to rise and subsidies began to shrink. NJ Transit recovers 55% of its budget at the fare box, the highest recovery in the U.S. Combine that with a gasoline tax that was not again raised until 2016, and it spelled a decline in a big way.
  4. NJ Transit has an entrenched bureaucracy that engages in “group think.” Appointments are generally political rather than qualification based. That has led to a lack of infrastructure upkeep, aging equipment, failures of equipment between servicing, practically non-existent communications, rude or non-existent customer service, and more.

During the Christie Administration, Gov. Christie reduced NJ Transit’s subsidy from $382 Million per year to $40 Million. That effectively forced NJ Transit to just run their schedule and defer maintenance and equipment purchases indefinitely. At a $40 Million annual subsidy over the 8 years of the Christie Administration, had NJ Transit been a private railroad, they would have declared bankruptcy. What it led to was a breakdown in equipment, bad decisions such as leaving rail cars stored in Hoboken during Superstorm Sandy thus damaging the equipment and a pay scale that remained the same for 8 years. NJ Transit employees, the good ones, began jumping ship to other transit agencies. What remains today is the largest engineer shortage in NJ Transit’s history.

Here’s what we need to keep in mind. Legislators have the mindset that rail/bus must turn a profit. There is NO rail or bus system on the planet that survives without governmental assistance. In Europe, gasoline taxes are nearly three times ours. They believe in investing those taxes into rail and streetcars (light rail). In the U.S., since rail and bus had previously been privately owned, the government assessed property taxes on any holdings of a railroad. No such policy extended to either airports or roads. The latter two because the government declares it a “vital necessity to be able to move goods in the defense of our country.” If we can change that mindset, I firmly believe we can turn NJ Transit and Amtrak around. 

Now, to the practical. Many friends in Chatham have been victims of canceled trains and have, literally, waited hours to board a train to get home. If this happens to you, here’s what you can do.

If you’re traveling from NY Penn Station to the Morristown Area, you can walk to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and take bus #77 to Morristown. It is run by Community Coach. It isn’t quick; but, it will get you home. You can also take PATH to Hoboken and take a Summit/Dover bound train out of Hoboken Terminal. A third alternative is taking PATH to Newark Penn Station and taking bus #70 running to the Livingston Mall via Union, Springfield & Summit.  When you arrive at the Livingston Mall, switch to bus #873 to “Greystone/Morristown.” That bus parallels the Morris & Essex Rail Line.

Knowledge is power.  It’s a shame you have to have this knowledge if you need to get home.  For its part, my rail group (NJ-ARP) continues to press the Legislature to completely reform NJ Transit and make it more accountable to us, the riders; and, I’ve put in my application to get appointed to their board!

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