Assemblymen John Wisniewski (D-19) and Scott Rumana (R-40) exchanged sharp words with each other Wednesday over possible solutions for the state’s underfunded NJ Transit system, with Wisniewski calling for a raise in the minimum wage as Rumana defended making further cuts while raising fares. When things got heated between the two, Wisniewski turned his criticisms to the Christie administration and pointed to what he characterized as its long-term mismanagement of the commuter line.
“If we want to talk about making New Jersey Transit more efficient, then maybe we shouldn’t be bestowing jobs to people like Mike Drewniak, who is a notable transportation expert after he spent twenty years as a political flack. Let’s call it like it is,” Wisniewski said. “Under this governor, NJ Transit has been forced to raise fairs twice. We’ve had the largest single fare increase in NJ’s history. As a result of that ridership has gone down.”
Drewniak, formerly a spokesman for Governor Chris Christie, accepted a job with NJ Transit last February as their chief of policy and strategic planning.
Wisniewski argued throughout the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee hearing that an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage would provide a more robust tax base. That increase would contrast with the system’s current reliance on Turnpike Authority dollars and clean energy subsidies. With 2015’s eight percent fare hikes, those making the current minimum wage of $8.38 have felt the pinch as a ride from Trenton to New York City has spiked to $16.75. NJ Transit is entering the 2016 fiscal year with a $56 million budget gap after cutting $40 million in expenses.
“Yes, the gross number of dollars going to NJ Transit has increased. however, it is not sustainable,” Wisniewski said. “$295 million of the money that is going to subsidize New Jersey Transit comes from the NJ Turnpike Authority. And that number, by the turnpike’s own admission, is not sustainable.”
Rumana countered Wisniewski, saying that fare increases are an inevitability before comparing the commuter rail system to other public amenities like swimming pools and golf courses.
“The subsidy really is higher than it’s ever been, from the state,” he said. “Who else would pay for it? I mean the person who uses the system ends up having to pay for the system. If you have a town pool and you go to use the pool, you pay for the pool. If you go to use the county golf course, you pay for the use of the golf course.
“The cost of operating the system has to be brought down in some fashion, because you can’t ask for everybody else in the state to pay more for the system just to keep it afloat the way it is either. Because everybody else is overtaxed.”
Wisniewski went on to criticize those clean energy funds’ use in funding the commuter rails, saying “I can guarantee you there was nobody in this legislature that said ‘One day we’ll take money that was supposed to make energy more efficient, and we’ll put it into trains.’
“A minimum wage job provides a person about $17,000 a year,” he said. “Those of us up here who are saying ‘Let’s hold the phone on increasing the minimum wage,’ I would challenge you to live on $17,000 a year.”