By Peter Kasabach
To help close an $80 million budget gap, NJ Transit has proposed to increase its fares an average of 9 percent, effective Oct. 1, 2015. This would be the first fare increase in five years; the last fare increase averaged 22 percent. As part of this proposal, some bus and train service would also be reduced. Meanwhile, the state’s gas taxes, already among the lowest in the nation, have not been raised since 1988.
As an organization dedicated to ensuring that New Jersey’s growth is directed toward places with existing infrastructure, including transit, and away from the state’s precious open space, New Jersey Future is deeply concerned about the lopsided nature of these cost burdens.
Market trends and state policy are both directing future residential and employment growth to New Jersey’s urban and more developed suburban areas, which rely heavily on transit. Allowing a fare increase without also raising the gas tax is exactly the opposite of sound economic and growth policy, in effect subsidizing a dying form of sprawl development while creating new barriers to redeveloping our downtowns and cities.
As New Jersey Future Senior Director of State Policy Chris Sturm points out, a fare increase without any increase in the gas tax also serves to negate any positive locational effects of our current economic-development incentives. Those incentives signal to employers that we want them in our transit-rich cities and suburbs, but these fare increases are telling their workers that we want them commuting by car.
What is particularly perverse is that as higher fares push people back into their cars, our roads will become even more congested, making commutes more painful and expensive for everyone.
We know that the costs of our entire transportation system are not covered by the user fees imposed — gas taxes for roads and fares for transit. In order to have a complete and functioning transportation system, additional funds are needed. It is patently inequitable to exempt those who commute by car from sharing these costs, while at the same time shifting more of the burden onto transit riders. Even more unfair is the fact that these high transit fare costs fall disproportionately on those who can least afford to bear them — low-income workers without cars, who need access to transit in order to earn a paycheck.
These two fare increases in the past six years have not been matched with any increase in general road fees. It’s time to align our transportation revenue generation with our state policy, efficient land use and the state’s economic future; and it’s time for drivers to pay their fair share.
Peter Kasabach is the executive director of New Jersey Future.