The agency moved to revoke free rides for non-union employees and non-union retirees starting in January. About 1,800 of NJ Transit's 11,000 employees would be affected, plus about 700 retirees.
"The state is in dire straits. This agency is having a very difficult time moving forward," said James Simpson, state Department of Transportation commissioner and chairman of NJ Transit's board, said after the meeting.
The board listened to more than 20 employees and retirees give impassioned two-minute comments on why the agency should keep the passes. Some said the loss would be akin to a pay cut. Others said revoking the program would negatively impact employee morale and lead talented employees to leave. Others said it would affect service by taking employees' eyes and ears off trains and buses.
"We make the trains and buses run on time," said Fredric G. Rubenstein, a retired chief regional supervisor after the vote. "What they did today was an atrocity."
Leslie Davis, a recruiter, said she cannot handle the $304 it will cost her each month to commute.
"I consider it a pay cut for someone who has not received a salary increase in five years," Davis said.
Transit officials said the move will save $1.6 million per year, a figure they obtained through surveying employees about their pass use.
Simpson said there will be no fare hikes and the cut was necessary.
"We're just trying to keep this place viable so the people who work here do have jobs," he said.
In other business, the board voted to buy 820 safety shields to protect bus drivers. The purchase was spurred by a number of recent attacks on bus drivers, said James Weinstein, the board's executive director.
NJ Transit will also pay $5.6 million to settle claims with a contractor who did design work for the ARC tunnel project, which Gov. Chris Christie canceled in 2010. The agency wanted to settle to stave off the possibility of a larger judgment later, Weinstein said.
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