NJ Transit chief: No fare hikes on tap

NJ Transit chief: No fare hikes for rail, bus riders despite $2B in Superstorm Sandy-expenses

Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Top transportation officials recounted a challenging fiscal year to New Jersey Senate lawmakers on Wednesday, tallying more than $2 billion in Superstorm Sandy-related expenses, seeing the state's snow-removal budget busted by frequent winter storms and continuing to rely on borrowing to fund road and bridge repairs.

But, rail and bus riders will be spared fare increases for the fourth straight year, they said.

Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson and executives at NJ Transit and the Motor Vehicle Commission appeared before the Senate Budget Committee, as the panel began its review of Gov. Chris Christie's proposed $32.9 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Lawmakers must act on the proposal before the current fiscal year ends.

NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein told the panel that two-thirds of the 70 locomotives damaged during the late-October superstorm had been repaired and returned to service, but less than half of the 272 rail cars that flooded during Sandy were back in service. The damaged rail equipment had been stored in a yard that flooded for the first time during the mega-storm, the state's worst natural disaster.

Weinstein said he expected the $450 million in damages to be covered by insurance and the federal government. He said an additional $800 million would be spent on system improvements in the aftermath of the storm. Simpson said his department projected nearly $1 billion for the reconstruction of Route 35, emergency repairs and post-storm improvements. A disaster-recovery aid package approved by Congress is expected to fund much of New Jersey's infrastructure rebuilding program.

Despite the storm, Weinstein said NJ Transit planned to keep fares from rising in the coming year. He said the railroad boasts a 96 percent on-time record, the best in its 30-plus-year history.

Simpson also told the panel the state had busted its snow-removal budget for the year, spending $50 million — more than twice as much as last year — to keep snow and ice off the roadways during several winter storms. He said DOT must mobilize crews and equipment based on forecasts, and can't wait until flakes start hitting the ground to react.

The only contentious portion of the three-hour hearing involved the administration's five-year capital plan for funding road, rail and bridge repairs known as the Transportation Trust Fund. Christie announced the plan more than three years ago, saying he would decrease the state's reliance on borrowing and increase the percentage of pay-as-you-go projects each year. That hasn't happened, however.

The administration was $10 million shy of its $76 million pay/go goal in the first year of the plan and has no pay/go projects on the books in this or the upcoming fiscal year. Simpson deferred questions on the transportation plan to Treasurer Andrew Eristoff, who is scheduled to appear before the panel on Monday.

"The treasurer clearly is going to have to answer some of these questions; they're not following the five-year plan that they laid out — pay-as-you-go," said Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat who chairs the budget committee. "We're in the third year of the plan and they've only paid $60 million of the $700 million they were supposed to pay."

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