Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop was the first major Democratic figure to throw his hat into the ring to succeed Governor Phil Murphy. To connect with New Jerseyans, solicit their input, and make them aware of his position on major policy issues, he has arranged for what is expected to be a series of conferences on a given topic. Thursday evening, Fulop hosted a discussion on the topic of infrastructure with respect to transportation. In the most densely populated state in the Union, and as an urban mayor in particular, Fulop wants to position himself on the forefront on an issue which is not only a massively expensive consideration for the state and the respective municipalities involved, but also one which can dramatically affect the economy, urban development, and the environment.
During the course of his virtual town hall, introduced by allies Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle and Amalgamated Transit Union International Vice President Raymond Greaves, Fulop emphasized a number of major points with respect to infrastructure, and claimed support from a number of mayors around the state in his bid for the governor’s seat. He said that his decision to enter the race so early was criticized by some as a “political mistake”—although he gave no names—but that his endeavor was to improve the state, treat people “like adults,” and bring them on board with his campaign and policy objectives. He added that his research and information-gathering had come primarily from municipal leaders, not “think tanks” and asserted that all of his transportation infrastructure goals were “realistic” and attainable.
Which touches on a key point. Many voters are cynical when it comes to their politicians who promise a lot and deliver on very little. How often do they really make the trains run on time?
Fulop’s infrastructure scope, however, is more than just working with preexisting assets. He wants to look at fiscal and physical improvements to the Port Authority, PATH, bike and ferry infrastructure, trains, congestion pricing, station modernization, overall safety, and fixing the Motor Vehicle Commission.
“Statewide investment in smart transportation infrastructure will be a top priority for the Fulop administration,” Fulop said before touting some past accomplishments in Jersey City. He cited a public “micro transit” arrangement to get people in “transit deserts” to where they needed to go. In two years, Fulop said, over a million rides had been arranged. He also highlighted Jersey City’s bike share program, one of the first municipalities in New Jersey to roll out this European-style, emissions-free alternative to taxis and rideshares.
Fulop also touched on, of many subjects, New Jersey Vision Zero, which is an initiative to eliminate road deaths by implementing policies to reduce and ultimately prevent pedestrian and commuter deaths. If it sounds like a pie-in-the-sky concept for New Jersey cities, Hoboken last summer said that their Vision Zero policies ensured no such deaths happened within four years.
Who could claim that it was “bad politics” to eliminate traffic deaths? Whatever strategies are required, as an urban mayor, Fulop is well positioned to draw on his own executive experience to draw up credible plans for statewide policies to help make that a reality. The Hoboken example shows that even if traffic deaths aren’t going to be eliminated everywhere all of the time, it can be done at least some of the time. That itself accounts for much.
While not delving into great specifics on improving the overall safety of transport infrastructure as a whole—the conference was only so long—Fulop said that pre-existing stations are most likely to be used by commuters if they are safe, clean, and updated. He also said that he would prioritize light rails over road expansions—a topic which would resonate in a state that many already consider over-developed, crowded, and cramped. Getting people off the roads and onto the rails reduces traffic pollution, prevents roadway sprawl that would consume precious space used either for human or environmental purposes, and Fulop said that the means exist to ensure transit infrastructure is efficient with “dynamic routing” technology.
New Jersey, Fulop said, used to be a mass transit model for the whole country in the past. Now, he envisions returning those glories to the Garden State.
The question in the back of everyone’s mind, of course, is how to pay for all this.
Congestion fees are controversial. New York City is likely to impose congestion fees—a tax—on New Jersey commuters driving in through the tunnels. Governor Phil Murphy, Senator Menendez, Congressman Menendez, Congressman Gottheimer, and Congressman Pascrell have been at the forefront of the charge in leading opposition to the proposal. The congestion pricing, they say, unfairly forces New Jerseyans who work in New York City to finance the MTA. They also assert that this will shift pollution onto New Jersey—Bergen County in particular—as vehicles reroute to avoid the more southernly approaches and not be hit with a fee of some $23 or more. No provision, New Jersey opponents have said, has been made to account for the health impacts on New Jersey from this shifted, concentrated pollution.
Fulop, however, disagrees that congestion pricing is a bad idea. “I think New Jersey’s approach today from the governor’s standpoint is a mistake and I’ve said that publicly,” Fulop said. “I think filing lawsuits is counterproductive. The lawsuits will ultimately likely end with the federal government saying that congestion pricing can move forward, and we should be thinking more about how to participate in it.”
Congestion pricing, Fulop said, does not impact most commuters, and he dismissed the idea that it is an additional burden on the poorest of commuters. In fact, he asserted the opposite. “Expanded congestion pricing is important because if you think about who congestion pricing impacts today, really only 3% of the commuters commute by car themselves, driving to work every day. If you are wealthy enough to drive your car into Midtown Manhattan and find parking day in and day out, the congestion pricing tax that people talk about today doesn’t matter to you. You are essentially talking about a tax on the wealthiest people in the surrounding area here, and those dollars should be going back to mass transit to make it a better commute for the 97% of the people that do use mass transit. Now let me say this: I do think that when I put out this congestion pricing plan, that New Jersey should engage in it as well. I do think there are access points that would never impact a New Jersey commuter coming in, but would impact a commuter coming into New Jersey.”
This may remain a tough sell, since not everyone going into the City is a commuter, or frequent visitor, but may still have to shoulder an onerous expense on top of the tolls, gas, and parking expenses. Nevertheless, Fulop noted there can be flexibility. The state of New Jersey, Fulop said, would not have its hands tied with a catch-all blanket-policy, either. This can be used to best tailor the timing and implementation of congestion fees on New Yorkers. “We outlined clearly how New York exempts plenty of people and that’s the conversation that’s happening right now. New Jersey would have the same way of exempting and controlling the times on when best to tax New York drivers coming into New Jersey. But the reality is that there should be a conversation around a regional transportation system and solutions. I’ve said on some interviews the same thing, that the fact that the MTA and New York City has struggles with their transportation system, and New Jersey Transit in New Jersey has the same, and we compete for the same federal dollars in an aggressive way, is counterproductive for everybody. There really needs to be a regional conversation on how we all benefit. Litigation is not the solution here.”
While some major cities around the world have implemented congestion pricing, it is not yet common in the United States. Fulop nevertheless defended the idea. “Where congestion pricing has been implemented, it has shown to be a benefit for congestion issues, which is something that we all experience here in New Jersey, of course. Secondly, it’s good for the environment. Thirdly, I want to bring you back to the fact it’s not a tax on New Jersey residents. Here’s what I’m proposing: imposing a tax on New York residents… you have to realize what New York is doing here is actually a tax on the wealthiest people in New Jersey that choose to drive their cars every day. I want to clarify why we are approaching it in this way. I don’t think we should be whining and complaining and going through litigation. I’ve never done that here as mayor in Jersey City as the first approach and I don’t think that’s the responsible thing to be doing statewide.”
With NJ Transit looking at a billion-dollar fiscal hole in the next two years, Fulop said that the revenues could be raised by reinstating a business surcharge with the Corporate Business Tax, or CBT. Under the Murphy administration, this is scheduled to expire. Fulop would revisit it.
“The CBT is a dedicated revenue source towards the billion dollars that is the current projected gap of New Jersey Transit,” Fulop said. “It’s important to have a dedicated revenue stream: the CBT is currently in place in New Jersey, and it sunsets. The conversation statewide is whether Governor Murphy should allow it to sunset. I think the responsible thing is ‘no’. It’s been something that’s been paid for by the largest corporations. The reason I think that the CBT is a natural fit is because it is something that’s already accepted. It’s not a new tax. It’s normalized for them over the last four, five, six years since it’s been in place. We’ve seen the economic environment in New Jersey increase for these larger corporations, so it’s something that they could certainly handle. With regards to operations beyond that, we dedicated in the plan the congestion pricing benefits towards the increases that we would need for PATH or the light rail service. Those dollars are also outlined as having a dedicated revenue stream in the plan. What I tried to do was not to take anything without a responsible way to pay for it.”
The mayor noted one particular exception. “The only things there that are not fully-funded are small pilot programs like the micro-transit system,” Fulop said, “as far as trying to connect transit deserts, etc. Everything else in there I outlined is funded. The expansion of the light rail in the areas that were outlined, I said we’d re-allocate some of the dollars that were there for Turnpike expansion, because again, it’s a one-time revenue one-time expense, capital dollars that can go towards light rail. It is infrastructure improvement, but I think it is more important for the betterment of residents. So, the short answer is everything there has an actual path to be paid for.”
Fulop also said he has big plans for the Motor Vehicle Commission. Describing the MVC as the most direct, and frequently only direct contact New Jerseyans have with the state, the Jersey City mayor said that how people perceive the MVC colors their perception of the state apparatus as a whole. To address some of the problems people have had with the MVC, Fulop said he wants to extend office hours and roll out more services which can be done online rather than in-person, making the service more convenient. Perhaps most ambitiously, he said his goal is to make MVC visits a half-hour experience for most people.
A trip to the MVC can be very disruptive, especially with long, slow lines. Fulop said that this can upend someone’s plans, and it needn’t be so. “We’ve changed the hours in our plan to make it more convenient for residents so they don’t have to change their whole day,” Fulop said. “We talked about the type of leadership that retail-focus would be important. Motor Vehicle is one of the most important functions in New Jersey, and it’s not treated as such… Making it easy and convenient for people is paramount. I outlined in our plan how we would give discounts where people doing more of their simple transactions online to alleviate the pressure at the actual storefronts, or as I view them, the brick and mortar MVC locations.”
It is an ambitious plan, but one which Fulop hopes will resonate with New Jerseyans as practical and practicable. Infrastructure is often a top concern of New Jerseyans, regardless of party affiliation, and Fulop can make political capital by establishing himself well on this non-partisan issue which affects people of all backgrounds and all walks of life. Fulop will, of course, need to address more divisive and polarizing topics as he marches down the long campaign trail for 2025, but by laying down the tracks for a long-term infrastructure plan, the Jersey City mayor may be able to power up his electoral engine for the long haul. In the event that Fulop can credibly demonstrate that his plans will have a tangible economic benefit for the “everyman” at the expense of the wealthier residents or big businesses—he may yet have a hard time selling the idea that the NYC congestion tax is something New Jerseyans should accept—he can downplay accusations of being a “tax and spend” Democrat as one who could deliver, both literally and financially, the Garden State’s beleaguered commuters.