30 January 2006

NJ Transit at a crossroads

    If God had intended us to fly, he would never have given us the railroads
      Michael Flanders

The business section of this Sunday's Times of Trenton had an article by Michael Lavitt about the NJ Transit's current crossroads. Unfortunately, it's not on NJ.com - don't know why.

It builds on some of the issues Lavitt raised in this article questioning whether Amtrak should remain in control of the Northeast Corrider, framing the debate with a story about a 60-year-old power line that shut down the Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast and Raritan Valley Lines and inconvenienced 10,000 morning commuters. He notes that:

The stretch of railroad between Washington and Boston is the only significant right-of-way that Amtrak owns and operates. And there are some who question whether the current Amtrak, headed by a board of Bush cronies who Congress refused to confirm, starved for capital funds and struggling with huge operating losses, should continue to own or control the busiest stretch of railroad in the country.

The aformentioned cronies got new recess appointments. You've got to wonder what's up when a Republican president is afraid to let his choices face Senate confirmation.

NJ Transit has funding concerns of its own. The state's Transportation Trust Fund, which pays capital expenses of mass transit and highways, needs a new source of revenue. If none is found, all money from the fund is obligated to pay for bond debt. An increase in the gas tax is shaping up to be that new source of funding. There seems to be growing support, especially with the recent decrease in gas prices. Personally, I think increasing the gas tax was a good idea even at the post-Katrina highs, but I digress.

I think the state needs to keep funding NJ Transit. Mass transit in NJ has seen vast improvements in New Jersey. Trains run more often, with more seats and more new cars. The Hamilton and Secaucus stations were both immediately successful, offering commuters more options for departures and connections. There is still debate about the River Line, but its ridership growth continues to be in line with projections.

There is more on the horizon. Lavitt's article points out some of the things we have to look forward to. There are the new multilevel cars, which he reported on last week. There is also the renovation of the Trenton station, scheduled to be complete in 2007. With proper funding, a direct connection could be added between the River Line and the Atlantic City line.

Even better, a by placing an electric locomotive at one end of a train and a diesel at the other, a train could run directly from New York's Penn Station to Atlantic City in 2 1/2 hours. This, in particular, seems like a no-brainer to me. What better way to lure New Yorkers to Atlantic City?

Here is my thinking on all of this: We need to keep expanding and improving our mass transit. The gas tax is the appropriate funding source, and there's room to increase it. We have too many cars on the road as it is. We need to make it easier for people to use alternatives. Continuing to improve the infrastructure and increase services will make mass transit more and more attractive. With each improvement, each new service, ridership will to increase. Like the movie said, "if you build it, they will come."

We've come a long way, we can't turn back. And with Bushies in charge of Amtrak, the stakes on one of the nation's busiest railroads just got higher.

Cross-posted at BlueJersey.net.

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