TRENTON — Martin Heraghty, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 824, had words for Gov. Chris Christie in Trenton Thursday night.
"Listen up Gov. Christie: We will not sit down and shut up. We will stand up and fight the hike," Heraghty said during an NJ Transit hearing on its proposed fare hikes and service cuts held at the Trenton Transit Center.
Heraghty wasn't the only one chastising the governor Thursday night for NJ Transit's proposal to close its budget gap byincreasing transit fares and discontinuing services. Officials, residents and transit users voiced opposition, many of the speakers blaming Christie for the way the changes would negatively impact their daily lives if enacted.
"We did not create this mess, and we cannot be the only ones left to clean it up. If the governor and legislature won't step up to fix a crisis that's been coming for decades, the least they can do is find a short-term solution," New Jersey Policy Perspective's Deputy Director Jon Whiten said. "Passing the buck to transit riders just won't cut it."
Though the agency identified more than $42 million in internal savings by reducing overtime and other expenses, it still faces about a $60 million budget shortfall for the 2016 fiscal year, said Alan Maiman, NJ Transit's deputy general manager of bus service planning. The proposals would "better align service with demand," he said.
"Service and fare adjustments are always an option of last resort," he said. If approved in July, proposed service cuts would happen in September, and fare increases would take effect on Oct. 1.
The agency is recommending bus service between Princeton and the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro be discontinued due to low ridership. Maiman said an average of 4.3 passengers ride the bus per hour of operation.
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert urged NJ Transit to preserve the transit link while she acknowledged "low ridership is the reason the 655 bus is on the chopping block." Increasing fares will cause a heavier reliance on cars and other vehicles that will congest and pollute roadways, she said.
"The people that use the 655 really depend on it," she said. "Residents of Princeton who do not own a car currently rely on public transportation."
Hospital officials have said they are prepared to continue subsidizing the bus service if the service survives.
Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) said middle class and working poor residents would be hardest hit by the changes, which could drive New Jersey commuters out of the state to live closer to their jobs.
"In effect, you are adding insult to injury when you ask riders to pay more and receive less," Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) added.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) said the transit proposals would have a disparate impact on riders from urban communities because they will be less likely to afford the fare hikes.
"All of us benefit from low fares because the less cars that are on the road really helps out the environment and helps out the congestion," he said. "If we chase more people into their cars on the roads, it's going to not benefit us."
Members of New Jersey For Transit — 18 groups focused on the need for investment in affordable and efficient public transit in the state — also spoke against the proposals.
"Public transit is the key to upward mobility for lower income families, and necessary to support the continued growth and prosperity of our state," said Trenton resident Dena Mottola Jaborska, deputy director of New Jersey Citizen Action.
"Public transit connects people to jobs and other opportunities that they need to build a better future," Mottola Jaborska said. "Our state cannot hope to prosper if lower income families are left behind, unable to access opportunities such as work, college classes or job training."
The final public hearings took place Thursday in Trenton, Morristown and Paterson. NJ Transit also accepted email comments until midnight Thursday.
For more information about the budget and service adjustment plan, visitwww.njtransit.com.
Nicole Mulvaney, NJ.com