James D. Adams is starting to sound like a broken record.
But one that crescendos every time it jumps.
In Adams’ three years on the NJ Transit board, he was the only “no” to vote on agency budgets, a trend he continued on Wednesday.
Adams has made a few simple requests of agency officials over the years regarding budget preparation.
He wants the council to be more involved in its creation so that issues can be discussed more thoroughly. He also wants to see the budgetary options, dissect different ways to address budgetary challenges. And finally, he wants to end the practice of cannibalizing the capital fund.
This year he has tripled on those demands, especially the last one, saying bluntly, “This practice must stop.”
“In the worst budget times, I can almost understand why we employ this practice,” Adams said, “but I don’t understand why with over $2 billion unspent [federal] available, we are still drawing money from our capital funds to cover this operating deficit.
“Based on these facts, I cannot vote in favor of the 2022 operating budget.”
Adams’ thumbs down on NJ Transit’s $2.65 billion fiscal year 2022 budget was — again — a token gesture of principle that sits quietly in the minutes of meetings rather than sparking a mutiny within the board.
Budget issues, however, caught the attention of Talia Crawford of the advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
“The practice of capital transfers to the operating budget has resulted in lost investment opportunities well over $10 billion, which has been an impediment to service expansion, various overhaul projects and the electrification of the bus fleet,” Crawford said.
The biggest culprit for NJ Transit’s flawed budgeting is a more than 30-year-old habit of moving hundreds of millions of dollars from the capital fund each year to balance the operating budget. While this practice of filling budget holes was forgivable and, perhaps, unnoticeable for a few years, it has now become a blatant addiction that the agency can’t seem to stop.
The amount of the transfer has been decreasing in recent years, with the deficit amounting to $493 million in fiscal year 2019, falling to $460 million in fiscal year 2020 and $353.9 million in fiscal year 2020. in fiscal year 2021. But this budget shows a deviation from the steady downward trend, bringing the budgeted transfer from capital to operations to $362 million.
“NJ Transit remains committed to eventually eliminating our reliance on these transfers,” spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said in an email responding to questions about budget issues.
Federal funds — from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act — continue to provide a critical fiscal cushion to the bottom line, accounting for 34% of the agency’s revenue stream, as rates fall behind. compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“Entering the third year of COVID, projected farebox revenue for fiscal year 2022 remains just 50% of pre-pandemic levels,” Crawford said. “It’s concerning because once the federal dollars we receive to compensate for the loss are gone, we will still be left with the problem of identifying sustainable and reliable funding for NJ Transit’s operating needs.”
In past years, there were whispers agree with AdamsThere were concerns about the agency’s budgeting practices and deficits, but this year none of the current board members commented.
The other eight council members voted in favor of this budget.
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his work covering the region’s transport systems and how they affect your travels, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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