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HANSEN: Lack of funding responsible for looming NJ Transit strike

Opinions Column: Oh, the Places You'll Go


If you were planning on taking a train home for spring break, you may need to make other plans. On March 13 — one day after Rutgers’ spring break begins — a cooling-off period will end, and NJ Transit workers will have the option to strike. Make no mistake: This would be absolutely devastating to the economy of the New York metro area — hundreds of thousands of workers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania would be unable to get to their jobs. But how did we get here, and what can we do?

Since 2011, NJ Transit workers have been working without a contract. In June, contract negotiations broke down between rail unions and management, and President Barack Obama created the first of two Presidential Emergency Boards (PEBs). Provided for in the Railway Labor Act of 1926, the president can appoint a PEB when the National Mediation Board, an independent federal agency created through a 1934 amendment to the RLA, finds that a contract dispute threatens, "substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service." PEBs make a recommendation, and a cooling off period in which unions are prohibited from striking and management is prohibited from locking employees out is instated.

Our current situation has had two PEBs, both of which have sided with the unions. The most recent board recommended an 18 percent pay increase, which includes retroactive increases for the years they’ve worked without a contract. The board also recommended that employees contribute 2 percent annually toward health benefits, whereas NJ Transit management wants employees to contribute 10 to 20 percent of health insurance premiums, which unions argue would effectively eliminate any pay increases.

There’s no question that NJ Transit workers face a bad situation. Working without a contract for five years is clearly unacceptable, and they deserve regular salary increases, especially as the cost of living goes up each year. Legislators in Washington recognize this as well: A bipartisan group of N.J. representatives signed a letter, authored by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th) and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd), urging NJ Transit officials to seriously consider the PEB’s recommendation. They specifically highlighted recent federal legislation that grants New Jersey $3.1 billion for transit, noting that the funding should make pay increases easier.

Their argument seems like common sense. But as NJ Transit Interim Executive Director Dennis Martin noted in his response, the agency simply cannot afford the costs of the PEB’s recommendation, highlighting the fact that the additional transit funding can only be spent on capital projects, not regular operating expenses. NJ Transit officials further noted that such an increase would likely need to be funded through an additional fare increase. It’s difficult to identify a villain here. Workers deserve a fare wage, but the agency can’t pull money out of thin air. Perhaps then we should turn our eyes to Trenton.

Last month, the Christie Administration released its proposed 2017 fiscal year budget, without specifying a final dollar amount for NJ Transit. While some transportation experts are enthused that NJ Transit’s subsidy will increase from $33 million to $127.7 million, the budget’s far from perfect. While the subsidy may increase, NJ Transit officials estimate that the PEB’s recommendation will cost more than $180 million. As recently as 2012, the agency received $309.4 million. Further, many sources of funding are less than ideal. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) hopes to continue last year’s practice of diverting funds from the Clean Energy Fund to NJ Transit, to the tune of $62 million, a stopgap measure that isn’t sustainable in the long run. This increase of funds may seem useful, but it’s far from enough: Not only is the Transportation Trust Fund about to go broke, but NJ Transit has dramatically higher expenses this year, from maintenance cost increases to pay raises. More funding is good, but not enough. If Trenton wants to avert a strike and keep NJ Transit sustainable in the long run, they need to step up funding both for capital expenditures and operating costs.

The prospects don’t look good. Perhaps in between campaign stops for new friend Donald Trump, Christie will come up with another source of funds — but don’t hold your breath. In the end, our best hope may be that the contract dispute is handled at the negotiating table rather than the picket line. NJ Transit management and representatives from the Rail Labor Coalition are heading to Washington to meet with the National Mediation Board in order to avert a job action. Hopefully a settlement will be reached. If not, students can buy $17 round-trip bus tickets to New York in the Student Activities Center. I’ll see you there.

Nick Hansen is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science with a minor in history. His column, "Oh, the Places You'll Go," normally runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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