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Editorial: Let's hope NJ Transit gets the help it needs in special appropriation bill

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When your primary means of transportation around New Jersey is a state police helicopter or a nice car with a state trooper as a driver, you don't spend a lot of time thinking about NJ Transit.

Gov. Chris Christie gets the helicopter. Senate President Steve Sweeney gets the car and driver. The rest of us, too often, get the short end of the stick. Especially the folks who rely on NJ Transit's trains and buses to get to their jobs and then home again efficiently and safely.

And we would sure hate to think that’s what happened with Sweeney’s initial proposal for an immediate, supplemental $400 million appropriation from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to repair bridges and roads throughout the state: While Sweeney promised road, bridge and tunnel repairs in every county, the first version of his bill made no mention of the underfunded agency.

Sweeney and Christie made a deal last year to replenish the nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund by raising the state’s gas tax. The TTF is now expected to fund $2 billion a year in transportation projects between 2017 and 2024. In his recent budget address, Christie called for spending $400 million immediately and not waiting for the new budget to be finalized in June. Sweeney obliged with a bill that is being fast-tracked through the Legislature.

‘What you’re dealing with is an agency that’s being systematically starved,’ a former executive said.

Sweeney’s $400 million appropriations bill was amended last Thursday by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee to include $140 million for technology and safety improvements at NJ Transit, with the remaining $260 million going to road, bridge and tunnel projects.

That’s certainly good. But let’s remember that Christie, with Sweeney’s help, is responsible for underfunding NJ Transit in the first place.

Last September, after an NJ Transit train crashed into the Hoboken Terminal, killing one person and injuring more than 100, The New York Times reported that the state’s annual contribution to the agency was approximately one-tenth of what it had been in 2009. The agency has been forced to divert capital funds for operational expenses.

“What you’re dealing with is an agency that’s being systematically starved,” Martin Robins, a former NJ Transit deputy executive director, told the Times.

Even before the Hoboken crash, federal rail officials found dozens of safety violations that needed to be addressed immediately by NJ Transit, according to The Associated Press. The Federal Railroad Administration conducted its safety audit after noticing an increase in incidents involving NJ Transit.

There’s no doubt that New Jersey’s roads and bridges need the immediate work promised by this supplemental appropriation. But NJ Transit — and its riders — desperately need help, too.

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