Originally published by NJ.com: https://www.nj.com/news/2021/02/stop-raiding-clean-energy-funds-to-plug-holes-in-nj-transit-budget-advocates-say-to-murphy.html

Stop raiding Clean Energy Funds to plug holes in NJ Transit budget, advocates say to Murphy

Are two “green” goals competing with each other for funds in the state?

A group of transit, environment and social justice activists say that’s happened by raiding funds from programs intended to clean the air and promote energy conservation to fund NJ Transit. The group called Jersey Renews wrote to Gov. Phil Murphy, asking him to fix the situation that has sent federal Clean Energy Funds to support NJ Transit’s operating budget for 11 years.

Specifically, the coalition of 65 community, church, environmental, labor and transit advocates called on Murphy to end the diversion and find a dedicated source of funding for NJ Transit’s operating budget in the fiscal year 2022 budget that Murphy is scheduled to deliver next week.

“We wanted to highlight these programs impact our lives and our communities,” said Berenice Tompkins, Jersey Renews campaign organizer during a Zoom press conference on Wednesday. “They aren’t abstract lines in a budget.”

Murphy and other governors have used the federal Clean Energy Funds to boost the operating budget the state provides to NJ Transit. In fiscal year 2021, $82 million in Clean Energy Funds was allocated to NJ Transit that Jersey Renews advocates said didn’t go to programs to help low-and-moderate income homeowners winterize their houses and make them more energy efficient

The Clean Energy Funds helped single parent Lashaunda Carter make energy efficiency improvements to her home that saved her money and that she couldn’t have done without the program.

“That can’t be done without this program. It alleviated a hardship for me and my family because I qualified,” Carter said. “I’m grateful that I qualified for a loan and that the funds were there.”

In addition to benefiting families such as hers, Carter said Clean Energy Fund money goes back in to businesses and the economy, in the cost of actual improvements and money saved on energy costs, helping the community.

The importance of public transit wasn’t lost on speakers, who said the coronavirus pandemic showed how essential workers depended on NJ Transit to get to and from work. Local bus ridership remains the highest at roughly 50% below pre-COVID 19 levels, compared to rail and interstate bus ridership.

“We’re submitting a letter to the governor to ask him to fully fund the Clean Energy Funds,” said Doug O’Malley, Environment New Jersey Executive Director. “We need these investments more than ever. The clean Energy Fund diversion happens and doesn’t halt the NJ Transit budget deficit.”

So far, the coalition hasn’t received a response from the governor, he said.

Establishing a dedicated funding source for NJ Transit would allow Clean Energy funds to be used for their original purpose and address a deeper issue of transferring money from capital funds, intended for major purchases and projects, to cover operating costs, said Janna Chernetz, Tri-State Transportation Campaign deputy director.

Dedicated funding could allow the agency to finance delayed projects such as extending Hudson-Bergen Light rail to Bergen County, building new light rail lines in South Jersey and deploying electric buses.

“It will address the needs identified in the five-year capital plan, and to provide the service the state needs and deserves,” she said. “More capital investment means better service, affordable service, more environmentally responsible service, the creation of jobs and an overall better quality of life for residents.”

Where could the money come from? NJ Transit is scheduled to receive an infusion for funding from the recent NJ Turnpike Authority toll increase that took effect on Sept. 13. The Turnpike toll increase provides $375 million in fiscal year 2021, which increases to $525 million after that.

Some advocates suggested toll funding allocated for multiple Turnpike and Garden State Parkway widenings could be put toward NJ Transit instead. Federal stimulus funds from the Biden administration could also be tapped, said Amy Goldsmith, Clean Water Action Executive Director.

The biggest picture is finding funding to fund projects to reverse the effects of climate change and greenhouse gases on the environment, she said.

“Science says we only have 9 years left before we can avert the worst effects of climate change,” Goldsmith said. “The proposed budget is a statement of moral compass. Money does matter, but it needs to be used in the right ways.”