New Jersey's transit agency is considering a fare hike to fill a revenue shortfall, its director told lawmakers Thursday.
NJ Transit officials said they expected to propose a fare increase by the end of April, in light of a $60 million gap in next year's operating budget.
Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee, executive director Veronique Hakim did not specify how much the agency might raise fares.
But given the size of its last fare increase in 2010 - which averaged 22 percent - "any proposal we put on the table would have to be substantially less than that to be palatable," Hakim said.
A proposed fare hike would be subject to "robust" public comment, she said.
A spokesman for the agency, William Smith, said later Thursday that the agency "would attempt to keep any increase in the single digits."
Also Thursday, New Jersey's transportation commissioner told lawmakers that the state's program for road and bridge projects would "hit a wall" by next year, requiring more revenue.
While Gov. Christie's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes $1.1 billion in spending for transportation projects, Commissioner Jamie Fox called the plan a "short-term fix" that would last only through the end of June 2016.
"And then we are broke," Fox said. "And that is not open for debate."
Fox, a Democrat whom the Republican governor selected last year to serve as transportation commissioner, has been traveling the state pressing for a long-term source of funding for road projects.
The state's Transportation Trust Fund, which has been used to pay for projects, will hit its borrowing limit in the coming fiscal year.
The state's infrastructure is "in disrepair," Fox said.
He said 580 bridges were structurally deficient, including 290 owned by the Department of Transportation.
"I have not spoken to anyone, members of this committee included, who does not agree that we are in a crisis or that it is around the corner," Fox said.
In February, Christie said that the state's transportation funding situation was "not a crisis at the moment," and "this is not something to rush on or rush through."
Fox said after Thursday's hearing that Christie's comments reflected that Treasury officials had "found a way" to pay for the Transportation Trust Fund for another year.
"We have bought ourselves some time," Fox said.
The state treasurer testified this week that the administration plans to use $1.1 billion in borrowing, cash balance, and a loan repayment from NJ Transit to pay for transportation projects. It also plans to use $350 million from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Much of the transportation funding debate has centered on the prospect of an increase in New Jersey's 14.5-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline, which has not been raised in more than 20 years. "It's the million-pound gorilla in the room," Sen. Linda Greenstein (D., Middlesex) said Thursday.
Fox, who has avoided calling for a gas-tax increase, said Thursday that "I don't want to box myself in," instead advocating for a "reliable, dedicated" revenue source.
Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said earlier this year that he had allowed "everything to be on the table."
Sen. Sam Thompson (R., Middlesex) said a gas tax increase was "quite frankly . . . the only plan right now that's out there that seems to be viable."
He urged Fox to produce a plan that would work for longer than five years, or "you'll be right back here" with the same problem.
"My main goal is to get some plan that can get 41 and 21 votes," Fox said, referring to majorities in the Assembly and Senate.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) recently said that Republican lawmakers didn't have the "political will" to raise taxes and that negotiations with Christie's office "have cooled down a bit."
Fox said after Thursday's hearing that he had met that day with lawmakers "about how we move forward."
"There's a pace to this," he said.