Regional Plan Association Testimony to the New Jersey State Senate Select Committee on New Jersey Transit Hearing

Good afternoon. My name is Kate Slevin, Senior Vice President of State Programs and Advocacy at Regional Plan Association and I am joined today by my colleague Nat Bottigheimer, RPA’s New Jersey Director. 

RPA is a non-profit civic organization that conducts research, planning and advocacy to improve economic opportunity, mobility, environmental sustainability and the quality of life for those who live and work in New Jersey and the rest of the New York City metropolitan region.

Thank you, Senate President  Sweeney and Senate Majority Leader Weinberg, for convening this Select Committee and for holding these hearings, and for your strong leadership on transportation issues.

Improving and expanding New Jersey Transit service throughout the state is vitally important to New Jersey’s economy, environment, and to the hundreds of thousands of people who use it and rely on it daily. Using transit produces 50% less carbon per mile compared to automobiles, and is a necessary component of a state climate strategy when transportation represents the single largest component of greenhouse gas emissions.

To make progress on this critically important mission, RPA makes the following four recommendations which we will discuss in detail today. 

  1. Provide reliable, increased funding for transit, especially transit operations

  2. Prepare for a shutdown of the Hudson River tunnel

  3. Improve the bus system, especially in New Jersey’s cities

  4. Work with NJ Transit to develop a strategic plan with clear reporting requirements, and connect it to a long-term vision

Provide reliable, increased funding for transit

For too long, New Jersey Transit has suffered unpredictable funding, especially for day-to-day transit operations. 

Annual uncertainty about resources available has a paralyzing effect on transit agencies. This hampers not just the ability to meet basic needs, but also the ability to plan strategically for the future. This diagnosis of funding came through loud and clear in last year’s North Highlands Audit: funding is inadequate, uncertain, and unsustainable.

Every year, the agency is forced to transfer at least $400M from its capital budget to meet basic operating needs. New Jersey Transit’s operational and maintenance costs have risen nearly 30 percent in the past 10 years while subsidies have declined, forcing the agency to fund operations through dollars intended for capital projects to meet rising ridership demands. We likened this process last year to using the college fund to pay for groceries. 

Fares have risen during this time, and now cover 60% of operations for NJT’s rail service operating costs, a percentage that ranks among the highest in the nation. 

While state support has grown somewhat over the past few years, anyone who consistently rides NJTransit will tell you that the existing level of support allows only basic and unreliable level of service. Service is infrequent and trains and buses are overcrowded. Again, the North Highland report underscored this: on-time performance was found to be highly variable, a key indicator that physical assets are in dire need of repair, upgrade, or replacement. 

While New Jersey Transit’s on-time performance for rail was around 91 percent (2017), the main commuter service line (NEC) stands at 85 percent. The reliability of the assets is getting worse with a six percent decrease in mean distance between failures, or the distance between breakdowns, for the rail cars in the last two years. The operation of the assets (dwell times, dispatch delays, and delays caused by other operators) contributes to over 50 percent of the total delays on average. And cancellations are frequent due to undersupply of engineers and other staff. 

NJ Transit has started working on these issues, but without more reliable funding along with reforms within the agency that I will speak to in a moment, success will be limited.

The Legislature and Governor must identify new, dedicated sources of funds, that NJ Transit can count on for the long-term. These funds must be sufficient to end the cannibalization of capital funds to meet annual operating requirements and to allow for an EXPANSION of bus and rail services to meet the growing demands of New Jersey’s economy and residents.

At a bare minimum, you can estimate about $60 million increase for labor contractual obligations annually, so if the state wants to see substantial improvement on the service side, state allocations will have to grow at an even faster pace.  

To end the diversion of capital funds for operations -- -- and to provide a stable foundation for strategic planning and strategic behavior, we recommend two specific actions.

First, identify a regular, forecastable source of NEW revenue dedicated to supporting transit operations. There are any number of potential sources for such revenues that have been discussed, including restoration of sales taxes to past levels, permanent extensions of business income tax surcharges, and establishment of a so-called “Millionaire’s Tax.” 

RPA  also supports generating revenue from new fees established by the Transportation Climate Initiative. The Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) is a regional cap-and-invest program for transportation emissions across 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Participating states have formally agreed to move forward with a policy to reduce transportation emissions, and help address carbon emissions.

The system would work by setting a ceiling on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions in the 12-state region that stem from combustion of fossil fuels used in transportation. Wholesalers and distributors of motor fuels throughout the region would bid against one another in an auction of “carbon allowances” for the right to generate emissions. The payments received by the participating states would be shared and made available for other productive uses. California has adopted such a system, and 25% of revenues are dedicated to California transportation.

RPA recommends that the Legislature support New Jersey’s participation in the TCI, and should advocate for the dedication of TCI-generated funds for transit-operations, system reinvestment, and transit network expansion.

Because TCI-generated revenue may not be available for several years, RPA also recommends that the legislature identify other funding sources that could be tapped in the near-term to meet the needs of transit operations, investment, and system growth. 

For example, we continue to be strong supporters in NJ, NY and CT for new fees on busy highways to manage traffic and raise revenue for transportation. NYC’s new congestion pricing program will result in $15 billion into the next capital program of the MTA, all dedicated to fixing subways, buses and commuter rails. In CT, we supported new tolls to fund the transportation capital program. 

Longer term, in our Fourth Regional Plan, we called for bolder strategies, such as the replacement of the gas tax with a fee per mile driven over the next few decades. 

Whatever the funding approach, a capital investment strategy to fix the system will not come cheap.

Prepare for a shutdown of the Hudson River tunnel

Every day that passes without Federal funding and a firm schedule to build and repair rail tunnels under the Hudson River is a day closer to a long-term closure - planned or unplanned - of rail tunnels for NJ Transit and Amtrak.

Let us be clear, this shutdown would be an economic calamity for which we are woefully unprepared. The possibility that a tunnel closure would coincide with disruptions related to the rebuilding of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York is truly frightening.

Our Preventable Crisis report which we released earlier this year, looked at the effect of a possible shutdown of the existing Hudson Tunnel for four years. The report underscored this need. 

We estimated that travel delays resulting from even a partial closure of the Hudson rail tunnels to Penn Station would result in a cost to the national economy of $16 billion in direct impacts; $7 billion in tax revenue across the region, with the largest portion of those costs impacting New Jersey; and a $22 billion reduction in real estate value in New Jersey. 

RPA’s Hudson Tunnel closure study showed how riders displaced from New Jersey Transit trains would filter on to other systems like PATH and commuter buses. It also showed that the new drivers on the road displaced from transit in the peak period would cause travel delays for 250,000 New Jersey motorists of 10 minutes or more, and delays of 60 minutes or more for 100,000 motorists.  A failure in the rail infrastructure is not just an inconvenience to rail riders….it is a threat to everyone in the transportation network.

New Jersey’s and New York’s future success becomes increasingly intertwined every year. The importance of New York City jobs for New Jersey’s economy -- and of New Jersey housing and residents for New York’s labor market -- has grown significantly in the past 20 years.

Every day, 424,000 New Jerseyans commute to jobs in New York City, or 1 out of every 8 employed residents of Northern New Jersey. 

Since 2005, 85% of new jobs created in the region were created IN New York City. As a result, the City’s economy is growing in regional significance.

Reflecting that change, there has been major growth in travel to New York for employment since 2000, with 119,000 more New Jerseyans making a daily trip since then.

The jobs that New Jerseyans commute to in New York tend to be high-wage jobs, providing an outsize positive impact on New Jersey’s economy and to state and local budgets.

The value of transit connectivity to New York is reflected in New Jersey’s real estate values. RPA research has shown that for homes within two miles of a rail station, for every minute of travel time savings to the city a home will increase an average of almost $2,000.

These numbers combined with the existing vulnerability of the system are worrisome. Consider that:

  • The Port Authority Bus Terminal badly needs reconstruction, as does the Helix structure that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel.

  • 60% of train delays in the Hudson River Amtrak rail tunnel are due to signal malfunctions directly attributable to saltwater intrusion during Superstorm Sandy, and there are regular delays due to spalling concrete and catenary structure falling from the tunnel roof. 

  • The Portal Bridge needs replacement and, like the rail tunnel, is stuck in the doldrums at the Federal level. The Herculean efforts that have been made to fund a replacement bridge, a new tunnel, and tunnel repairs are almost entirely dedicated to repair existing infrastructure, very little will be used to add critical capacity.

  • PATH trains are full to the brim during commute hours, and mid-day repairs make service unpredictable at other hours; many stations are not long enough to accommodate 10-car trains, are not fully accessible, and need major investment to accommodate current and forecast future ridership.

  • Ferry service offers a glimmer of hope, but ferries require dock space on an increasingly crowded Hudson River waterfront, and new transit systems are needed to get people to and from docks on both sides of the river and make ferry service viable for large numbers of new commuters

  • All this to say that there are only 6 Hudson River crossings, this is woefully inadequate especially when compared with the 18 East River and 15 Harlem River crossings. 

The legislature and governor must task an organization with responsibility for coordinating Trans-Hudson transportation well in advance of a disaster; to share that plan with the public, and to invest ahead of time in actions that support continuous connection between New Jersey’s and New York’s tightly linked economies.

The degree to which these systems are each operating “in the red zone” -- not the NFL red zone that means close to touchdown, the performance red zone that means close to meltdown -- means that a failure in any one system will put an almost unsupportable burden on the others.  We cannot afford a cascade of infrastructure failures.

Improve the bus system, especially in New Jersey’s cities

More than half the transit trips made each day in New Jersey are on a bus, but buses get much less than half the attention and investment. 

NJ Transit has more than 3,000 buses operating on more than 250 routes and almost 6,300 route miles. These buses make more than 15,000 trips each day, serve more than 16,000 bus stops, and carry about 33 people per trip on average—and many more on high ridership routes.

Despite the importance of bus travel to so many New Jersey residents, buses remain second-class citizens on New Jersey’s roads. A bus with 25 passengers on it is given as much opportunity to get through a traffic light as a car with one occupant. Bus trips typically take much longer than the comparable car trip, and very little is done on our roads to move people on a bus past congestion caused by individuals in cars.

While there have been strides in making information available about bus arrival times, compared to rail riders the State’s bus passengers have access to much less extensive information about routes, schedules, and other information. In fact, there is no NJTransit bus map. 

Improving the quality of bus service is not just important for the 478,000 trips per day made in the State, it’s also important as an investment in the places that will be powering our growth for the coming decades.

Focusing more attention and resources on buses is important to support the lives of those who depend on bus transit and, increasingly, those who choose not to own cars. As communities around the State make good on their commitments to deliver more housing, and as cities around the State grow and revitalize, bus service is a strategic element that can reduce traffic impacts, support health and safety, and accelerate community reinvestment. 

These improvements can also be made faster and at a lower cost than rail improvements. Buses offer the greatest potential in the near term to increase the transit system’s reach, to connect affordable communities with employment centers, and to support equitable growth in New Jersey’s established urban centers.

The legislature should demand, and support, NJ Transit and NJ DOT investments that: a) speed buses along their way; b) provide better information to riders about their travel options; c) integrate bus and rail trips more seamlessly; d) update transit routes to match today’s travel patterns; e) provide safer routes to, and more comfortable facilities at bus stops; and f) leverage technology advances in ride-share and micro-mobility services.

New businesses increasingly want to locate in established urban centers, in large part because the workforce they depend on has voted with its feet and gravitated to those places. The growth of employment in New York City compared to the region’s suburbs makes that point.

  • For a city like Newark, better bus service is a crucial element of an economic development strategy that attracts business, encourages growth, and ensures that city residents will have access to, and will be able to participate in, a strengthened urban economy.

  • Today, people who commute to work in Newark travel predominantly by car, whether they are located in Newark or outside of the City. Of the travelers to Newark’s 120,000 jobs, 22 percent -- about 26,000 -- take some form of transit. Of Newark residents who work in Newark, almost 60% of those 15,000 residents drive to work, a serious indictment of the quality of transit within the City.

  • Businesses seeking to locate in downtown Newark face a quandary:  to have access to employees, they need either a walkable city and quality transit -- the kind of amenity they get in New York City -- or they need parking structures and roads that will get commuters to their jobs in cars.

Relying on auto access and parking structures makes development more expensive and the city less attractive, so a new business dependent on parking will spin off less benefits to its city neighbors and also degrade the environment it’s moving in to.

By contrast, a transportation network that prioritizes transit and walkable streets to link businesses with workers means lower costs to businesses; fewer state subsidies required to make new investment economically feasible; and economic opportunity more available to city residents, not only those who already live there but those who increasingly want to make cities their homes. 

We are pleased to be up here with Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an organization that shares many of these same goals. 

Work with NJTransit to develop a strategic plan with clear reporting requirements, and connect it to a long-term vision

The legislature must demand, and support, articulation by NJ Transit and NJDOT, of a transit vision for New Jersey’s future as part of a comprehensive economic development and mobility plan.

This vision should clearly acknowledge the importance of the economic growth of walkable, transit-accessible places that affordably house the workforce of the future.  It should acknowledge the reality of climate change, sea level rise, and electrification as companion issues that must be addressed systemically. The vision should also adapt the models of past transit service delivery to the opportunities presented by new ride-share and micro-mobility technologies.  

To start, New Jersey Transit should prepare a comprehensive statement of transit system capital and operating needs for the coming decade. The inventory of needs should be accompanied by funding needs and recommended implementation strategies and schedules.

Similarly, the agency desperately needs a five year strategic plan that includes clear benchmarks for things such as agency governance reform, transit service delivery, and customer communications. Such a plan permits the public to track and follow improvements. We are pleased to hear the agency is moving forward to advance a 2020 strategic plan, but that document needs near-term benchmarks. 

For example, we know the agency has increased the number of locomotive engineer classes and hired more than 600 new bus operators over the past year. We know they have more than tripled construction contract awards to help rebuild infrastructure. We know they have launched a new app for fare purchases, schedules, and real time information  

But absent a comprehensive five year plan, with a list of annual benchmarks the agency can publicly track and report, it is hard for elected officials and the public to believe the agency is on track to fix the system.

For the longer term, the Governor’s office, New Jersey Transit and NJDOT must paint a detailed picture of an expanded statewide transit network and how it supports broader economic growth, environmental, health and housing affordability goals. Such a long term picture would include strategies for how to fund and deliver system extensions throughout the state that have already been planned, including light rail system expansions, new bus rapid transit routes, and the PATH extension to Newark Airport; and promote and encourage other low carbon transportation options like bike share, protected bike lanes and electric bicycle adoption in cities and downtowns throughout the state.  

Thank you for your time today, and we continue to be here as a resource and partner for you and the entire Legislature.