By Anjuli Ramos-Busot and Renée Pollard
Public transit is essential to our economy and the livelihood of local communities. Reliable transportation creates opportunities for workers to live more fulfilling lives. We all now know that safe, reliable and affordable public transit services are essential.
However, NJ Transit continues to be ranked among the worst in the nation for outages and service disruptions on routes based on decades-old residential and commuting patterns.
Research showed that NJ Transit does not serve the various counties of New Jersey fairly. There is a bias for commuter rail in North Jersey, and NJ Transit’s outdated bus routes have resulted in “transit deserts”. There are also households in the state that don’t have access to frequent public transit service – that means students arriving late for school, passengers missing appointments, and workers put their jobs at risk by missing their shift start times. We’ve come a long way since 1955, but we still have a long way to go.
One of the biggest problems with NJ Transit is the lack of a stable funding source. Most of the agency’s revenue comes from fares. Even with fare hikes, which hurt the people who need NJ Transit the most, fares does not cover agency operating costs.
Instead of dedicating a funding source to our transit agency, the state budget continues to take millions of dollars from NJ Transit’s capital budget to pay for operations and maintenance. This leaves no money to pay for service area upgrades or extensions.
This funding shortfall hurts New Jerseyans in more ways than one. Not only does this limit NJ Transit’s ability to improve service frequency and accessibility, it also slows the state’s progress toward transitioning to electric transit.
Electrifying our trains and buses is key to reducing pollution in communities where hundreds of buses pass through each day. People living in these communities suffer from asthma attacks and other health problems related to air pollution. One of the best ways to reduce air pollution while still providing access to public transit is to electrify our transit buses and train lines.
It’s not just a problem in New Jersey. As we move forward and continue to build and defend transit justice, we must continue to lobby our local and federal legislatures. We need to treat public transit as a human right and reclaim the wealth of corporations and billionaires have pocketed and are investing in public transport instead. Additionally, transit agencies need to make wages and benefits for a skilled workforce more competitive to support expanding or maintaining service.
The Sierra Club is part of the Transit Equity Network, which brings together transit riders, community organizations, civil rights groups, environmental and climate justice groups, and transit worker unions. Over the past four years, these groups have organized to make public transit a civil right and a necessary way to reduce single-passenger vehicle trips and reduce transportation emissions.
We see it in New Jersey and across the country: when buses go unfunded, when service is cut, when fares go up, people are negatively impacted. Improving our public transport is important for reducing carbon emissions and being more carbon-friendly while reducing breakdowns, delays and “transit deserts”.
Two years ago this month, the Sierra Club presented a Detailed analysis to NJ Transit offering a network of frequent service corridors throughout North Jersey to serve census tracts that are home to large numbers of low-income households.
Providing frequent service along these corridors would connect major destinations that are currently underserved, providing low-income residents with reliable and inexpensive transportation to hospitals, jobs, shopping malls and recreation areas. Although NJ Transit has undertaken a study of bus routes in Newark, any recommended improvements are offset by service and budget reductions elsewhere.
Before the next crisis, pandemic or ecological disaster occurs, we must provide sufficient financial support to ensure that our public transport systems do not collapse and can be maintained. Investing in seamless, fast and affordable public transit, as our study recommended, is a viable way to move towards a just transportation future.
We must advocate for transportation policies that tackle climate change while advancing public health and racial equity.
Anjuli Ramos-Busot is the Chapter Director of Sierra Club NJ. Renée Pollard is the Environmental and Social Justice President of the Sierra Club NJ Chapter.
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