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The Record-Press - Stender Calls for More Investment in Public Transit

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Location: Westfield, NJ

The Record-Press - Stender Calls for More Investment in Public Transit

Despite the critical condition of the Transportation Trust Fund, the state must find a way to increase funding for public transportation, Assemblywoman Linda Stender told members of the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition during a meeting Monday morning.

"As the price of gas increases, people are looking more at mass transportation," said Stender, who is the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 7th District. "With increased ridership, we should be putting more money in [to mass transit]."

A longtime Fanwood resident, Stender outlined the condition of the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which supports the annual capital programs of both NJ Transit and the New Jersey Department of Transportation. She characterized the fund as in "fragile condition," and said that there are no easy solutions to its funding issues.

"I don't come to you with great news, or a silver bullet to fix it," she said.

According to the fund's Web site, its revenue comes from taxes on gas, petroleum products and general sales, as well as "good driver" registration surcharge fees, heavy truck fees and contributions from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and South Jersey Transportation Authority.

Increasing the state gas tax, which is third-lowest in the nation, is one potential way to increase revenue, but Stender said she is opposed to that idea. Another recent proposal has been the privatization of a lane of the Turnpike, which would allow more toll money to be collected by truckers. That step would increase the contribution to the fund from the Turnpike Authority, but Stender said it would be unfair to place that burden on truckers.

Despite the problems facing the fund, she said that investing in infrastructure and public transportation is the key to the future of the state's economy, and that given the current economic situation, services should not be cut and public transportation should be made "affordable and accessible."

Ridership of all forms of mass transit, Stender said, is up, though investments in mass transit are down. She said only 2 percent of gross domestic product is invested in transportation, down from 3 percent a few years ago.

She advocated pumping more money into the rail system, which has seen in increase in ridership paralleling the rise in gas prices. Only 20 percent of transportation funding goes towards public transportation, she said, and that number should be increased. While cars are sometimes more convenient -- unless you're stuck in a traffic jam -- the rail system, she said, is good for the economy, the environment and overall quality of life.

"It's about priorities," Stender said. "Where they have been and where they haven't been. We have to change them."

"It was convenient and affordable to base all of our needs on gasoline consumption, but it's changing," she added.

The federal government, she said, should offer more tax incentives for alternative energy and fewer for oil companies. She also faulted the Bush Administration for directing resources to Iraq rather than America. $50 billion, she said, has been spent Iraqi infrastructure. "If every state got $1 billion back, imagine what we could do to solve our problems."

Stender also outlined a few improvements NJ Transit plans to undertake soon: first, the institution of more double-decker trains to handle an increase in ridership; second, a deal with Amtrak that will streamline rides and increase efficiency, and finally, a new hybrid engine for locomotives.

And she argued that the transportation challenges facing the state and the country are part of a broader set of economic concerns. "The past 15 years we've enjoyed what I call 'Fairy Tale Economics,'" she said. "Cut taxes, increase spending and have a happy ending. We can't have that; it's a nightmare."

The state budget recently signed by Gov. Jon Corzine, she said, begins to dispel that fairy tale. "This year's budget takes steps in the right direction in reducing costs in state government," Stender said. "These are trends that will continue. The voters are demanding it and legislators want efficiency."

Peter S. Palmer, chairman of the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition, agreed that the state's transportation plans are in need of reform. "The plan right now is based on gasoline at two dollars per gallon," he said. "It has to change."

He concluded the meeting by introducing a resolution strongly opposing NJ Transit's proposed cuts to the Raritan Valley line, which will result in a reduction of services on Sunday mornings (see related story). Palmer is also the director of the Somerset County Board of Freeholders, which passed a similar resolution on Tuesday.

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