‘Engaged’ Christie Won’t ‘Give away Store’ at New Jersey Transit Strike Talks

NJspotlight.com 03/04/2016

As commuters across the state reluctantly gear up for a possible New Jersey Transit rail-worker strike in less than two weeks, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday said that he’s personally engaged in the labor dispute and is hoping to head off a work stoppage. But he also warned that New Jersey Transit is ready for a strike, with a contingency plan in place. New Jersey Transit was in the spotlight again in the afternoon, when the New Jersey for Transit Coalition released a report revealing that, among other things, ridership had climbed more than 20 percent in a little over a decade while funding had dropped by just less than a third since 2004. The report also indicated that the agency is relying heavily on capital funding to meet operating costs. Christie’s strong talk about what looks to be an increasingly likely New Jersey Transit work stoppage came during a wide-ranging afternoon news conference held in Trenton. It served as his first extended remarks on a number of topics, including his decision to quit the GOP presidential contest earlier this year and his more recent controversial endorsement of frontrunner Donald Trump. He also pushed back against lawmakers’ concerns that expiring funding for state transportation projects is reaching a crisis point.

Earlier this week, the editorial boards of several New Jersey newspapers called Christie “selfish” and said it was time for him to resign. But Christie, a second-term Republican, fired back strongly at those suggestions yesterday, saying he is not going to resign. He also said he isn’t planning to spend a lot of time outside New Jersey this year as a surrogate for Trump. And he added that he’s now ready to fight with Democratic legislative leaders over a number of key issues, including his latest nominee for the state Supreme Court and a funding source for the state Transportation Trust Fund, which is on course to run out of cash in June. When asked specifically about the concerns that have been raised about the possibility that 4,200 New Jersey Transit rail workers will strike on March 13, Christie said he was “very engaged” in the issue. Earlier in the day, New Jersey Transit officials laid out their contingency plan for the strike, saying a combination of agency buses and private carriers will help pick up the slack. Temporary park-and-ride lots in key locations like the PNC Bank Arts Center off the Garden State Parkway in Holmdel and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford would also be utilized, agency officials said. But for weekday commuters trying to get into New York, New Jersey Transit officials also stressed that only 38,000 of the 105,000 daily commuters can be accommodated, meaning the bulk of those commuters and others on the state’s roadways should expect to be affected by the strike if it occurs. “We’re really at a crossroads and something needs to be done,” said Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which is a member of the coalition. “This is the administration that must deal with this head on.”

Tourism Climbs in NJ, with Increased Number of Visitors around the Garden State

NJspotlight.com 03/07/2016

The state’s tourism economy continued to grow last year despite a marked drop-off in revenue and jobs in Atlantic City, with overall spending hitting a high of $43.4 billion last year, newly released figures show. Among the state’s 21 counties, Atlantic County remained the biggest generator of tourism dollars at $6.7 billion, the state Division of Travel and Tourism said in a report. But while tourism earnings increased 3.3 percent in New Jersey as a whole, they fell 5.2 percent in Atlantic County, making it the only county to see a decline. Casino gambling revenues, or “win,” fell 6.5 percent. The crisis in the gaming industry, which saw four casinos close in 2014, was also evident in employment. Tourism jobs in Atlantic County plummeted 8.9 percent last year to 47,620 workers. The statewide job number was 318,330, an increase of slightly less than 1 percent. Passaic County saw the greatest percentage growth, with its relatively small tourism economy expanding almost 10 percent in one year to $569 million. Cumberland County was in second with an 8.8 percent increase, to $348 million, followed by Hudson, growing 8.6 percent to a little over $2 billion.

Visits and spending have been increasing in Hudson for several years thanks to the proximity of New York City and several other factors, said Bill La Rosa, the county director of cultural affairs and tourism. Travelers embarking on cruises in Bayonne often spend extra nights in the area before or after their trips, for example, and the county’s FIRE industries — finance, insurance, and real estate — make people aware of Hudson as a base from which to visit various attractions. After Atlantic County, the area with the biggest tourism economy is Cape May County, which saw an increase of 4.3 percent, or $246 million, to $6.04 billion. Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May Chamber of Commerce and the new president of the state tourism association, said her region benefited from good summer weather that lasted into the fall last year as well as the large number of second homes that draw their owners back to the Shore through Christmas.

Good signs for 2016 – The state tourism report, which was prepared by the firm Tourism Economics, predicts that strong U.S. employment growth, wage growth, and low gas prices will further buoy the state’s tourism economy. Weather, however, remains a “wild card.” Clark and other officials said they were also concerned about proposed legislation that they say could raise business costs and reduce the state’s competitiveness, including proposals to raise the minimum wage and require employers to provide paid sick leave. The report did not address the hotly contested plan for a referendum to authorize new casinos in North Jersey, which could hurt Atlantic City but potentially boost the state’s total gaming revenues by taking business away from New York casinos. Including direct and indirect impacts, the tourism sector accounted for 9.9 percent of total employment in the state. It directly generated $17.8 billion of the state’s gross domestic product. In particular, the percentage of all tourism spending in the lodging category, which includes gambling, has fallen from nearly 34 percent in 2009 to 27 percent last year.

Uncertain Funding, Looming Strike Could Mean Rough Road for New Jersey Transit

NJspotlight.com 02/26/2016

At first, it sounds like good news for New Jersey Transit. Buried inside the budget documents that Gov. Chris Christie released earlier this month is a proposal to significantly increase New Jersey Transit’s state subsidy. In fact, it could get a boost of more than $127 million if state lawmakers sign off on the deal. But transportation experts and advocates say now is hardly a time to celebrate. NJ Transit faces a possible strike next month by 4,200 rail employees who have been working without a contract since 2011. But arguably the most pressing challenge for New Jersey Transit right now is the potential for a strike to occur on a March 13, a date that’s been set by unionized workers who’ve been unable to come to an agreement with management on both pay hikes and changes to health benefits. The agency’s last rail strike took place in the 1980s, with outside bus drivers pressed into service in an attempt to get commuters to work in Manhattan or elsewhere within the state. Dennis Martin, New Jersey Transit’s interim executive director, said it’s too early to discuss the specific details of his agency’s latest plans for another work stoppage if it were to occur. “NJ Transit is actively involved in developing a robust alternative service plan in the event the unions call a strike,” he said in a statement. “We are working with our regional partners, including NJDOT, to provide as much service as possible to our customers.”

Ray Greaves, chairman of the Amalgamated Transit Union state council and a member of New Jersey Transit’s board of directors, put the blame for the agency’s money problems squarely on Christie, saying he hasn’t made funding transportation enough of a priority. “Transit in New Jersey is in crisis,” Greaves said. “We have a governor that refuses to address the problem.” Christie’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, calls for a $160.9 million state subsidy for New Jersey Transit. That would more than quadruple the $33.2 million that was allocated for the agency in the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Another $62.1 million is budgeted for New Jersey Transit in Christie’s fiscal year 2017 spending plan out of the Clean Energy Fund, which is supposed to use revenue generated by a tax on New Jersey electric and gas users to promote cleaner ways of producing energy. And New Jersey Transit will receive $204 million from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority during the next fiscal year, a reduction from the $295 million that’s being provided during the current fiscal year, according to budget documents.

Possible N.J. Transit Train Strike Raises Anxiety Among Commuters

NYtimes.com 03/02/2016

Faced with the possibility of a rail strike starting next weekend, New Jersey commuters are increasingly worried about a shutdown that could paralyze the region and send them scrambling to find a way into New York City. New Jersey Transit’s rail workers could go on strike if they do not reach an agreement with the agency over wages and benefits. After months of tense negotiations, both sides are meeting again with federal officials in Washington on Friday to try to secure a deal. A closing could force hordes of commuters onto buses and roads that are already packed. Officials in New Jersey and New York City are working on contingency plans for the more than 150,000 people who use the railroad each weekday.

For Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who rattled the Republican presidential race last week when he endorsed Donald J. Trump, the looming strike presents an urgent challenge back home. In a radio interview this week, Mr. Christie said that “intense negotiations” were underway. But Mr. Christie took a swipe at the rail unions before leaving the state to join Mr. Trump on the campaign trail on Tuesday, calling some of their demands “outrageous.” The governor emphasized that “every extra dollar I give them” would come from taxpayers and commuter fares. A strike could begin as early as March 13, which is a Sunday. New Jersey Transit, the nation’s third-busiest commuter system, may rely on buses and ferries to get commuters to New York City, as it did after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But the contingency plans are not likely to accommodate all of the regular train riders and could worsen the already snarled traffic between the states. Senator Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, a Democrat, said the strike could be “a complete catastrophe for New Jersey commuters and the regional economy.”

New Jersey Transit officials said they would release details of an “alternative service plan” on Thursday. The agency plans to set up five park-and-ride locations where people can catch a bus to New York City or to ferry and PATH stops in New Jersey, according to a person familiar with the plans who was not authorized to discuss them publicly. The pickup locations, which would have free parking, include MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford and PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. The agency’s more than 4,200 rail workers have been working without a new contract since 2011. The dispute has centered on wages and health care costs. The unions have proposed wage increases of about 17 percent over six and a half years, and workers would contribute a portion of their pay, up to 2.5 percent, toward health coverage. Officials at New Jersey Transit have said the unions’ demands would amount to increased costs of about $183 million and could require additional fare increases. The agency raised fares by about 9 percent last year after a fare increase in 2010 of about 22 percent.

New Jersey’s Transit Investment Falls as Use Grows, Report Finds

Bloomberg.com 03/03/2016

New Jersey’s capital investment in public transit has fallen 19 percent since 2002, even as ridership has grown by 20 percent, according to a coalition pushing for more spending. Funding for New Jersey Transit in the annual state budget fallen even more, to about $33 million from $350 million in 2005 when adjusted for inflation, according to a report released Thursday by New Jersey for Transit. The drop has led the nation’s third-largest commuter system to raise fares five times since 2002, and divert money for capital improvements to cover operating costs, the group said. New Jersey Transit rail commuters are paying more even as they endure crowding, an aging power system, and limited capacity in Hudson River tunnels that are the link to Manhattan. On June 30, the state will have exhausted its five-year, $8 billion fund for highway and rail projects. Democrats who control New Jersey’s legislature say a gasoline-tax increase is the only way to replenish the account; Governor Chris Christie, a second-term Republican, has said he won’t approve the higher fees unless tax cuts are made elsewhere. “Despite transit’s clear benefit to New Jersey, the state has systematically shirked its responsibility to invest the dollars necessary to create a world-class public-transit system that is reliable and affordable,” Ryan Hall, a staff analyst with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, one of the 19 coalition members, said in the report. New Jersey Transit’s fiscal crunch may soon bring its rail system to a halt. The agency has said it can’t afford a $183 million labor contract offer recommended by an emergency negotiating board, and unions may strike later this month if talks scheduled on Friday fail to find a solution.