Governor Chris Christie began his time in office with a fare increase on New Jersey Transit, and he is ending it by calling for another one.  

Shortly after he took office early in 2010, most riders on NJT were subjected to massive fare increases.  For most rail riders, it was 25%, while customers who rode trains outside of peak-commuting hours were forced to pay 47% more for their rides.  On short rides, the increases ranged up to 64%.  Although fares have risen again during Christie's tenure, he has proposed a new increase: a 90-cent surcharge on all rides between New Jersey stations and Penn Station, New York beginning in 2020.  That charge would increase to $1.70 in 2028 and $2.20 in 2038.

The object is to provide revenue that would pay for New Jersey's share of the cost of building the proposed Gateway Project.  The entire project goes far beyond building new tunnels into the existing station.  Instead, it calls for construction of "Penn South"; a new and separate station near Penn Station.  It would also include new infrastructure at Secaucus, a loop that would allow trains from Bergen County to go around Secaucus Station on the way to New York, and other features.  The Lackawanna Coalition has called for new tunnels into Penn Station for more than twenty years, but has also expressed strong doubts that other components of Gateway will ever be built.  The cost of the entire Gateway project has been estimated at $30 billion; a large amount for a fiscally-conservative administration and Congress to spend on a single transit project.  Instead, the Coalition has called for a more-affordable project that would include two new tunnels into Penn Station, a new bridge with three tracks and room for a fourth to handle the trains that will go to Penn Station, and improvements at the station itself.  The cost of a project of that scale would be about one-third of the estimated cost of Gateway, or less.  

A press release issued by Christie's office bore the headline: "Governors Christie and Cuomo Announce Commitment to Fund 100 Percent of States' Half of New Gateway Tunnel" and went on to say that New York would contribute $1.75 billion, while the Port Authority would add another $1.9 billion, for a total of $5.55 billion.  That money would be used as the "local match" that would pay 50% of the cost of the project.  The Release, along with supporting letters by New York State Budget Director Robert F. Mujica, Jr. and NJ Transit Executive Director Steven H. Santoro, give some details of the transaction.  It would involve a Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), administered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) over a 35-year payout period.   Project proponents expect a cash grant from USDOT for the Federal share.  The Release did not mention financing for any related projects, including a replacement for Portal Bridge or rehabilitation of the existing tunnels.

There are differences in the states' approaches to the financing plan.  New York would pay $1.75 billion toward the project, which would be provided by state funds.  New Jersey would contribute $1.9 billion, all obtained from riders through fare increases, which amount to user fees.  The release and letters did not explain why NJ Transit's riders would pay $150 million more toward the project than New York State would, under the plan.  At this writing, NJ Transit has not disclosed how it or Christie's office arrived at the precise amount of the proposed fare increase, or what sort of forecasting models for ridership demand and revenue-capture were involved.

According to Christie's office, the scope of the Hudson Tunnel Project, which would be covered by the funding announcement, includes a new two-track tunnel, the Hudson Yards Concrete Casing, and the rehabilitation of the existing Amtrak North River Tunnel.  The release stated that the entire cost of construction for those components would be $12.7 billion, while the new tunnel and Hudson Yards Concrete Casing would use up of $11.1 billion of it.  There was no mention of funding for the other $1.6 billion, which would be the cost of rehabilitating the existing tunnels into Penn Station, which were damaged in flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.    

Christie's announcement leaves a number of other questions unanswered.  

We do not know how this new charge will be applied.  Will commuters get a discount on it?  They  will if the charge is added to the base fare, because monthly tickets on NJ Transit currently cost 28 to 30 base fares, which means commuters get a discount after 14 or 15 round trips during a calendar month.  Riders who travel outside peak-commuting hours would pay the most in that event, because they would receive no discount, while they do not need whatever capacity at Penn Station that new tunnels might give them.

We also do not know what effect the proposed Penn Station charge might have on other travel modes.  If commuting to Penn Station becomes relatively more expensive, how many riders would take a bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal instead?  How many would be willing to pay the tolls and parking fees to take their automobiles into the City?  On the lines that go to Hoboken, how many would take the train to Hoboken and either a PATH train or a ferry to Manhattan?  Riders on the Morris & Essex Line and Gladstone Branch did not complain about making that commute for eight weeks last summer, but the weather was warm and they got a low fare and free transfers on PATH or the ferry.  Would reducing fares for the Hoboken commute ease the capacity constraint at Penn Station, or would NJ Transit consider it counterproductive to charge more for the ride to Penn Station and then encourage riders to use the "competing" terminal at Hoboken?   

The biggest question of all is whether or not Governor-elect Phil Murphy will go along with Christie's plan when he takes office next month.  It is not clear that he will.  Murphy has called for change at NJ Transit, but he has not released details at this writing.  

The Lackawanna Coalition and other observers of the local transit scene have conjectured that there may be another fare increase soon for the Garden State's transit riders.  NJ Transit's fares are among the highest in the nation, and service has been plagued lately with delays, crew shortages and other problems.  If there is a fare increase coming, the proposed surcharge for New York trips would add an additional increase in cost, and probably an additional increase in frustration for riders who must pay it.  

Trenton-watchers are waiting to find out what Murphy will do about this and many other issues concerning NJ Transit when he takes office, and the riders are certainly anxious to know, too.