NJ Transit tickets will cost you more to pay for new tunnels
New Jersey has its plan for paying its share of the Gateway Tunnel – and it’s going to cost every rail commuter who crosses the Hudson River to and from Manhattan.
Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced how the states will come up with $5.55 billion, their half of the most urgent, time-sensitive portion of the project to build new rail tunnels under the Hudson River.
The money includes $1.9 billion from NJ Transit, which says in a letter that it will generate the money through a new charge on all NJ Transit rail passenger trips each way across the river.
It estimates the per trip cost will be 90 cents beginning in 2020, increasing to $1.70 in 2028, then increasing to $2.20 in 2038. Those extra costs would be paid twice, presuming it’s a round trip.
Christie said the project is now positioned to immediately compete for federal grant funds.
“The commitments we make today mark a pivotal milestone in the construction of the Hudson River Tunnel Project, and builds on the work we began earlier this year with the early construction of the Portal North Bridge Project,” Christie said.
Christie leaves office in a month. His successor, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, said he’s “really happy that there’s progress on Gateway” but said the financing plan will be reexamined next year.
“When I am sworn in as governor, we will review the application and see if there is any way to provide additional relief to our commuters, and if there is, we will pursue it,” Murphy said, at a joint meeting of his transition committee working groups in East Brunswick.
“I’d like to know whether there were alternatives that did not involve further fare hikes, and if so why they were not pursued,” he said. “I don’t know the answer because I was not in the room.”
Murphy said transit fares have been increased 36 percent under Christie.
“This is the type of deal (that) tells you a lot about why people are frustrated with politics,” said Murphy. “We wait until the last minute to take action, and then you settle for some deal that cut in a back room somewhere so that one side or one politician or another gets a win without regard for the impact that it may have for the residents who foot the bill.”
Democratic lawmakers said a joint legislative committee hearing will be held Jan. 5 to examine the plan. They said it would cost commuters an extra $38 a month starting in 2020, rising to over $90 a month and that the decision should have been left to Murphy.
Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, said the plan to begin the surcharge in 2020 “makes no sense” because he’s been told the state wouldn’t have to start repaying the 2 percent federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Fund loan until the tunnel construction is complete. The $100 million annual cost could be included in the Transportation Trust Fund renewal in 2025, he said.
Under a framework agreement reached in 2015, the federal government agreed to pay half of the cost of the project, which includes building a new two-track tunnel.
New York committed $1.75 billion to the project, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will provide $1.9 billion through its 10-year capital plan.
Nick Sifuentes, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said Christie is making NJ Transit riders “shoulder the entire cost of a project he killed in 2010,” referencing the separate Access to the Region’s Core project, also called the ARC tunnel.
If the construction schedule was met, ARC would have been finished next year. Christie canceled the project, saying the state faced too much exposure if there were cost overruns, which he said was likely.
“Gov. Christie can’t undo the damage of cancelling ARC now, but we should find a fairer way to fund Gateway construction that doesn’t ask daily commuters to pay for every penny of New Jersey’s contribution to the Gateway project,” Sifuentes said.
Tom Bracken, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the Gateway project is “the most significant transportation project in the country” and vital to New Jersey’s economy.
“Any time you can finalize something like that is a huge plus because it’s been hanging out there for, what, three years almost? And now we have a solution in place,” Bracken said.
Bracken conceded that commuters who cross the Hudson will grumble about the extra cost.
“Well, they’re not going to be happy because they have to pay more fees. And nobody likes to pay more. But like has been said by our governor and many legislators many times, if you want something you have to pay for it. There’s no free lunch,” Bracken said.
“Our state is strapped fiscally, and to get this done there had to be a source of funding,” he said. “I guess there’s no better way to pay for a new tunnel than have the people using the tunnel pay for it.”
Additional funding would have to be identified later for the states’ half of the estimated $1.6 billion cost for rehabilitating the existing tunnels, which are deteriorating more quickly after flooding in Hurricane Sandy. That project isn’t expected to begin until 2026.
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