May 19, 2024

Commuters Feel Pinch as Christie Tightens

As a standard-bearer of fiscal conservatism, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey won over voters with his aggressive, no-excuses approach to taming budget problems and identifying the parties he held responsible for them. He has sparred with unions, cut spending and sworn off raising taxes, including the state’s low gasoline tax.

But no one can accuse him of pandering to the state’s commuting hordes. His approach to financing for transportation has led to big increases in transit fares and higher tolls on highways. And according to analysts and some elected officials, it could soon cause tolls on the bridges and tunnels leading to New York City to reach or exceed $10.

Last May, rail commuters using New Jersey Transit saw fares go up an average of 22 percent, while service was reduced. Five months later, Mr. Christie, a Republican, canceled an $8.7 billion project that would have built two rail tunnels between New Jersey and Midtown Manhattan, intended to ease congestion for New Jersey Transit riders. In doing so, he turned back $6 billion of outside financing, surprising the state’s Congressional delegation.

Then he pushed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to take $1.8 billion that the agency had pledged to the tunnel project and use it for road and bridge improvements in North Jersey. Meanwhile, an increase in highway tolls that was meant, in part, to pay for the tunnel is still scheduled for next year.

“Commuters are definitely not on his Christmas card list,” said Paul A. Sarlo, a Democratic state senator from Wood-Ridge who is chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

In office about a half and a year, Mr. Christie has battled teachers’ unions and leaders of municipalities trying to find ways to balance their own budgets with less state aid. The effects have been pronounced: This year, the vast majority of school districts with budgets on the ballot have proposed raising their taxes by no more than 2 percent, observing the limit set by the governor’s tax cap.

Transit advocates said they feared that the governor might undo New Jersey’s progressive stance on developing mass transit systems, which had been “nationally recognized,” said Kate Slevin, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which promotes public transit.

“Governor Christie has sort of stepped back from that,” Ms. Slevin said, noting that the governor had taken a very different path than his Democratic predecessor, Jon S. Corzine, a longtime Wall Street executive, who was a champion of easing the commute into New York.

“I don’t think you’re going to see transportation across the Hudson River improve much under Governor Christie,” she added.

For his part, Mr. Christie says his approach is more responsible because he plans to borrow less than Mr. Corzine did to maintain the state’s crowded network of roads. His press secretary, Michael Drewniak, said the governor’s proposed budget would keep the subsidy for mass transit “essentially whole.”

Mr. Drewniak added that Mr. Christie had told officials of New Jersey Transit to “explore affordable solutions to the trans-Hudson commuting capacity challenge,” like expanding the use of bilevel train cars and looking for ways to make Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan more efficient. The governor has also pledged to contribute as much as $150 million to the rebuilding of the Portal Bridge, a key rail link between Newark and New York, if Amtrak can obtain federal financing for the project, a spokesman for New Jersey Transit said.

But others say that the governor’s policy merely transfers the financial burden from state taxpayers to drivers, not only in New Jersey but also in surrounding states.

Jeffrey Zupan, an analyst with the Regional Plan Association, said that by directing the Port Authority to reapportion $1.8 billion to projects that primarily benefit New Jersey, Mr. Christie could inspire Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, to seek a similar arrangement to solve one of New York State’s many infrastructure riddles, like repairing or replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge north of the city. The two governors share control of the Port Authority.

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