The head of New Jersey Transit said Wednesday that a looming budget gap could force fare increases but that she will strive to make those less burdensome than the hikes instituted in 2010 that prompted heavy criticism from commuters.
Executive director Ronnie Hakim told board members Wednesday that an $80 million budget gap is forcing her to look at all options, including fare increases.
The last fare hikes, in 2010, averaged 22 percent across the system and were accompanied by service cuts and the elimination of off-peak discounts.
Hakim said Wednesday if increases become necessary, her goal is to make them less burdensome for commuters.
What happened in 2010 "was very harsh for our customers and we're doing everything to significantly avoid any recommendation remotely like that," she said. "So I would like to stay in the single digits."
The director added that the budget gap exists even after NJ Transit has identified more than $40 million in internal savings, and despite an extra $22 million in state support in Gov. Chris Christie's budget for the next fiscal year. The savings were realized partly in lower fuel costs and by reducing scheduled overtime, Hakim said.
"Going forward, I'm looking forward to receiving ideas from our departments," Hakim said, "and being out there and talking to our customers on what their thoughts are on this. I recognize that getting to the fare structure is really the last option on the table. Everything has to be looked at."
Hakim said it will be a few months before she will have a proposal to present to the board and at public hearings. There is precedent for the public hearings having an effect on the final proposal, as NJ Transit officials restored nearly $4 million in bus routes and services in 2010 that they had previously said would be cut.
Public speakers at Wednesday's board meeting assailed the lack of a long-term solution by the state for the depleted Transportation Trust Fund and its effect on New Jersey Transit's balance sheet. Joseph Clift, a former official at the Long Island Railroad and Conrail, said that in NJ Transit's current budget 39 percent of its operating budget is covered by funds shifted from its capital budget, far higher than comparable transit agencies.
David Peter Alan of the Lackawanna Coalition, a rail commuters' advocacy group, called for the agency to push for a gas tax increase to replenish the trust fund, and noted that the state was able to find more than $2 billion to widen the New Jersey Turnpike, a project that concluded recently.
"We are sick and tired of transit being treated as a business, while highways are treated as a public giveaway program," he told board members.