NEWARK - New Jersey Transit fares will jump about 9 percent for bus and rail riders starting in October, a move the agency's board of directors approved Wednesday to help cover a gaping budget hole.
Commuters in New Jersey take nearly 1 million trips on the state transit agency's trains, buses and light rail cars each week. NJ Transit officials have said the increases, which were proposed in April, are needed to close a $60 million budget gap that remained even after the agency cut $40 million.
The increase comes after the Legislature and Christie approved the fiscal year 2016 budget, making alternatives to the hikes and service cuts unfeasible.
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For example, one-way fares between Trenton and New York, the two endpoints of the Northeast Corridor Line, will rise by $1.25 to $16.75, an 8 percent increase. A monthly ticket would increase 9 percent, from $440 to $480.
Gov. Chris Christie, who was in Maryland Wednesday to receive an endorsement in his presidential run from Gov. Larry Hogan, said riders have to bear some of the burden of higher costs.
"You know, no one ever likes to see fares go up," he said. "But you know, in this world, increased service, increased wages all cost money. And the state's putting a lot of money into New Jersey Transit and will continue to do so, but riders have to bear some of that responsibility as well."
The leaders of the Democrat-led Legislature criticized the decision. Senate President Steve Sweeney said the hike resulted from a failure to plan for the long term and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto called on the board to reconsider.
The changes include some service cuts -- to late-night train departures on two lines leaving Hoboken, and on several bus routes in southern New Jersey, including service from Freehold and Philadelphia to Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson.
Commuters have assailed the increases in online postings and at public forums held by NJ Transit at several locations around the state in May.
On Wednesday, the increased fares generated fierce opposition among labor, environmental and transportation organizations, among others. Roughly two dozen people took part in the public comment session before the board voted -- all were opposed.
"This is a tax hike by another name," said Rob Duffy, the policy and communications director of New Jersey Working Families.
Jamie Fox, NJ Transit board chairman and transportation commissioner, said the agency's budget gap was several decades in the making. Without raising fares, the board would have had to consider laying off up to 1,000 workers and making drastic service cuts, he said.
"I will not vote for a budget that reduces service and lays people off," Fox said.
Board Vice Chairman Bruce Meisel said the board did not have many options and indicated the Legislature and governor could have acted to stop the hikes but did not.
"There were no good choices here," he said.
Acknowledging the frustration over the hikes, NJ Transit Executive Director Ronnie Hakim said the agency did a lot of work "up front" to make the proposal as "narrow" as possible.
The hikes are the first since 2010 when fares increased an average of 22 percent, and Hakim said earlier this year that the agency would take pains to ensure any increases didn't reach those levels.
Lawmakers, not surprisingly, are split along party lines when it comes to doling out blame. Democrats fault Christie for not coming up with a new revenue source for the state's $1.6 billion Transportation Trust Fund. Republicans point to the cost of retirement benefits, a source of court battles between Christie and unions, as a major contributor to the transit agency's budget gap.
The action comes the same day President Barack Obama has signed an executive order to create an emergency board to investigate the dispute between New Jersey Transit and its labor unions.
Hakim said the agency requested the intervention and is hopeful it could bring a resolution to the dispute.
The unions have been working without a contract for four years.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed in Newark.