Transit Woes Await Murphy in January

An NJ Transit train. Observer staff

Governor-elect Phil Murphy pledged to build a “world-class transportation infrastructure” in New Jersey after years of neglect.

He will get a chance to implement that expensive and logistically complex promise come Jan. 16, when he takes over a state government managing a portfolio of projects including repairs and expansions for NJ Transit, new projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a series of infrastructure upgrades slated to be covered by the Transportation Trust Fund.

Murphy has enlisted many of New Jersey’s leading transportation experts to his transition team, but he will need more than white papers to improve roads, bridges, railways and tunnels. Experts and lawmakers say the new governor will have to identify new sources of funding, too, at a time when he is already pledging to fund a crowded list of priorities from schools to public-worker pensions to free community college and broadband Internet access for all residents.

During the campaign, Murphy at one point floated the idea of raising a tax for transportation projects, before walking it back. He later released a plan to raise taxes on the wealthy and legalize and tax recreational marijuana, which would bring $1.3 billion a year by his own estimates. But much of that money would be eaten up by school and pension costs under the governor-elect’s plans.

Ironically, Gov. Chris Christie, whom Murphy blasted repeatedly during the campaign for neglecting NJ Transit, will be leaving the next administration a gift-wrapped funding source for roads, rails and bridges. Christie raised the gas tax by 23 cents a gallon in 2016, a move that raised revenue for the depleted TTF but that turned out to be unpopular with residents. Murphy will benefit from Christie’s move, reaping billions from the new tax and a bond issue that was attached to fund transit upgrades over eight years.

One of the most critical infrastructure projects facing Murphy is the completion of the Gateway Project, a sub-Hudson River tunnel that would boost rail capacity between New York and New Jersey and help alleviate congestion in the overcrowded and outdated current tunnels. The federal government has approved $900 million in federal funds next year for the project — but much more is needed, and the Trump administration has not indicated it will provide the money.

During the campaign, Murphy also advocated for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, another expensive project that will improve the decades-old transit hub.

“I think there is complete agreement that Gateway and the new bus terminal are ‘1’ and ‘1A’ on the priority list,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a vocal advocate for increased transportation infrastructure and more transparency at the Port Authority and NJ Transit.

Weinberg said that New Jersey’s economy is “built on transportation infrastructure” and that Murphy’s transition team will need to identify the areas that can be remedied most effectively. She said that in addition to building new projects, Murphy must bring transparency to NJ Transit, the beleaguered New Jersey train agency that has been plagued by derailments, delays and underfunding.

Weinberg said that the team should also try to increase ferry service between New York and New Jersey and extend the PATH station platforms to accommodate longer trains — two shorter-term projects than can be completed while Gateway is under construction.

“That should be enough of a list to keep everybody busy for the next 20 years,” Weinberg said.

Last week, Murphy announced 81 advisers to his transition team. Six co-chairs will deal directly with transportation and infrastructure issues. Another seven will advise on labor and workforce development issues, another piece in the state’s transportation puzzle due to the volume of workers that will be needed in order to complete Murphy’s lofty transportation goals.

In a Sept. 12 post on the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s “Mobilizing the Region” blog, Janna Chernetz, a New Jersey researcher at the campaign, said that the next administration would be in a “strong position” to create a transportation panel charged with creating a report to find weaknesses in NJ Transit. In an Aug. 1 post, Chernetz wrote that transparency at the Port Authority is a critical step forward on a new bus terminal, a project she called “the Port Authority’s most pressing need.” She called the Gateway project the “most urgent transportation project in the country.” Chernetz, a member of Murphy’s transition team, declined to comment on Wednesday because the team had not held its first meeting.

Greg Lalevee, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, is a member of Murphy’s labor and workforce development transition team. He did comment on the state’s transportation needs.

One of the major priorities that must be tackled by the Murphy administration is boosting rail infrastructure, particularly between New Jersey and New York, a commute that hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans take every day, he said.

“I know that during the campaign, Murphy had discussed commuter rail; that needs to be addressed,” Lalevee said. “Our economy relies a lot on rail access. In that vein, we hope that he finds a way to become a voice to help Amtrak fund the Gateway project. To keep the economy buzzing along, you do need infrastructure. People need to get around and get to work.”

In addition to rail work and the Gateway project, Lalevee also called for an increased focus on road projects, something that he says will also improve accessibility around the state and alleviate road congestion.

“A lot of different people are on the same page with things that need to get done,” Lalevee said. “He is really, from my mind’s eye, looking for things he can do to improve the state.”

Transit Woes Await Murphy in January