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N.J. Senate President Sweeney wants annual $500M for NJ Transit in the state constitution

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney in Jan. 2017. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney in Jan. 2017. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

A top New Jersey lawmaker wants to change the state constitution to dedicate $500 million for public transit each year.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the constitutional amendment is necessary to ensure New Jersey Transit has a reliable funding stream and guard against the ebb and flow of annual budgetary priorities.

“If you constitutionally dedicate funding, then they can rely on that funding year after year,” Sweeney said of the agency.

Sweeney would need the backing of the legislature to pass the amendment before it went to voters for the final say.

The plan would take $300 million from the corporate business tax, $125 million from New Jersey Turnpike revenues, and $75 from the state’s Clean Energy Fund.

It is unclear whether Sweeney has the support of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, or Gov. Phil Murphy, who is in charge of NJ Transit and is scheduled to deliver his annual budget address on Tuesday.

“We look forward to assessing all the Legislature’s proposals as part of budget discussions over the next few months and working collaboratively to continue the historic investments Governor Murphy has made in NJ Transit,” said Murphy’s press secretary Alyana Alfaro.

During Murphy’s tenure, NJ Transit has hired more engineers and gotten on track to meet a federal deadline for an automatic train braking system, but persistent delays still plague the agency and rider complaints continue.

Those issues were central to a hearing Friday that preceded Sweeney’s announcement in which lawmakers grilled NJ Transit head Kevin Corbett about problems at the agency and recent press reports that raised questions about hiring practices.

On Thursday, the Bergen Record published an article highlighting possible patronage hires at NJ Transit. A day later, NJ Advance Media ran a story questioning whether Stewart Mader, the agency’s consumer advocate, was actually championing the concerns of riders or acting as a spokesperson for the agency.

Corbett acknowledged that the agency still had room to improve, but told lawmakers not to expect an operation of that size to turn around so quickly after years of disinvestment.

“Much like turning a battleship in the middle of the ocean, restoring New Jersey Transit is not an overnight endeavor,” Corbett said.

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