Municipal officials finally meet with NJ Transit reps

Mayors want better equity, communication from NJT

Photo Courtesy of Sheena Collum
Mayors representing communities on the Morris & Essex lines testified May 31 before a joint hearing of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee and Assembly Judiciary Committee. From left are Madison Mayor Robert Conley, Summit Mayor Nora Radest, Livingston Mayor Shawn Klein, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca, Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor III.

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — After weeks of being sidelined, municipal officials from several towns finally met with NJ Transit representatives June 7 to discuss the burden local communities will shoulder this summer as the Morris & Essex Midtown Direct trains to Penn Station are diverted to Hoboken. The diversion will last for approximately eight weeks while Penn Station is upgraded to repair tracks and switches.

After learning about this schedule change from a May 23 press conference given by Gov. Chris Christie, officials from the affected municipalities sought a meeting with NJ Transit to discuss ways to assist local commuters and to express their frustration that the Morris & Essex line is the only one being affected.

The meeting, initially scheduled for May 26, was postponed until May 30. Then, despite the fact that municipal officials headed to the NJ Transit headquarters May 30, the meeting was again postponed, this time to June 7. The meeting finally took place following a May 31 legislative hearing into the schedule change and how it is being handled, addressing such issues as inequity and poor communication.

Held at the NJ Transit Train Operations Center in Kearny, the meeting included NJ Transit senior staff, Assemblyman John McKeon, Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., and officials representing Maplewood, South Orange, Orange, East Orange, Livingston, West Orange, Madison, Morristown, Summit and Westfield.

On June 9, just two days after the meeting, NJ Transit published new weekday rail schedules to aid commuters; weekend service will not change. These schedules can be found online at www.njtransit.com/theupdate. The new schedule will be in effect weekdays from Monday, July 10, through Friday, Sept. 1, in order to accommodate the Penn Station track repairs, which are being implemented by Amtrak, which is responsible for rail service maintenance at Penn Station.

“More than 80 percent of NJ Transit customers travel over a portion of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor at some point during their trip, so in essence, they are customers of Amtrak as well,” NJ Transit Executive Director Steven H. Santoro said in a June 9 statement. “In developing this service plan, the safety of every customer was the top priority. Not only is this plan the safest, but it maintains the maximum number of seats across the rail system.”

According to the information published by NJ Transit on June 9, four Morris & Essex line trains will run directly to Penn Station in the early morning hours on weekdays; these trains are the 6602, 6604, 6696 and 6306, which are expected to arrive at Penn Station at 5:44 a.m., 6:29 a.m., 6:54 a.m. and 6:58 a.m., respectively. All other Morris & Essex line trains will divert to Hoboken. All evening trains are diverted, beginning in Hoboken rather than at Penn Station; for those traveling on the four direct morning trains, there is no return service in the evening and they must travel to Hoboken in the evenings to catch the westbound Morris & Essex trains.

While four morning trains will run directly to Penn Station, West Orange township engineer Leonard Lepore said that realistically only three will stop locally due to overcrowding; likely, at least one train will be full by the time it stops in Maplewood, South Orange, Orange and East Orange.

According to NJ Transit, Morris & Essex commuters will receive a discount up to 63 percent off of their regular ticket prices and their tickets will be cross-honored on all NY Waterway Ferry routes, NJ Transit’s bus 126 to Port Authority in New York and PATH trains in Hoboken. Additionally, private carrier buses to Port Authority will cross-honor rail tickets and passes with Hoboken as the final destination. During this time, NY Waterway Ferry will operate additional ferries during peak hours.

NJ Transit will also enhance its bus service during peak periods on key lines, with additional buses on standby to provide supplemental service from the South Orange Train Station bus stop located on Sloan Street between Second and Third streets, to provide express service to Port Authority should overcrowding arise on the 107 route, as well as additional buses on standby at Newark Penn Station to accommodate increased demand on the 108 line as needed. NJ Transit Light Rail service will also increase.

For complete travel updates, accommodations and information, visit www.njtransit.com/theupdate.

While officials were pleased to see some accommodations being made, they are still concerned that commuters along the Morris & Essex line will be the only ones affected during this rail repair — no other NJ Transit lines and no Amtrak lines are being affected.

“I made a strong case about the inequity of the decision to only impact the Morris & Essex train line. We did not get movement on that other than the early morning trains Transit decided to restore,” Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said in a June 11 email. “The meeting was productive as far as the proposed operation. We had not received the specifics prior to the 7th so the meeting was very helpful in understanding what our commuters will have to go through.”

When asked if she was satisfied with the results of the meeting, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum said “no and yes.”

“No because the M&E Midtown Direct lines will be solely affected by this change and yes because the persistence of South Orange and Maplewood through our emails, testimony at a judicial hearing and the comments made by our residents that were submitted can be found in the plan that was released by NJ Transit,” Collum said in a June 12 email. “A dedicated website was created to better communicate with those affected, which is critical, and to accommodate riders several provisions have been put into place including discounts, cross-honoring, additional PATH trains, and additional and more frequent ferry service. South Orange will also be receiving additional bus service.

“Moving forward both throughout this process and future processes NJ Transit has assured elected officials that communication and collaboration will be at the forefront of their priorities and that this was an untimely and unfortunate chain of events that caused much frustration and anger for myself and colleagues along the line,” Collum continued.

While East Orange officials are also concerned by the fact that only Morris & Essex commuters are affected, a chief complaint, which has been echoed by many others, is that there was no communication.

“I was able to join other mayors on May 31, where I spoke before the Senate Legislative Oversight and Assembly Judiciary Committee to express my concerns about the substantial impact of this project on the lives of our constituents,” East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor said in a June 12 email. “As I said then, I believe that NJ Transit should have provided the affected communities with information related to the disruption much earlier in this process. Collectively, we are accountable to over 50,000 daily riders and it is imperative that our communication with them be strategic, transparent, and concise.”

Lepore agreed that communication must be a priority. As such, he said West Orange is going to use everything in its toolbox to disseminate timely information to residents.

“There’s a number of enhancements (NJ Transit is) making to accommodate commuters,” Lepore said in a June 8 phone interview. “The earlier people hear about these accommodations, it will help alleviate their concerns.”

While Maplewood had already announced that it would be changing its evening jitney schedule to align better with NJ Transit’s new schedule, DeLuca assured that the township is also looking into other ways to help commuters.

“We will review morning and evening jitney times,” DeLuca said. “We also will change parking rules to allow for parking prior to 6 a.m. so that early train riders can park. We are still looking into providing jitney service from Maplewood to the South Orange express buses to New York City.”

Similarly, Collum said South Orange officials are working with the South Orange Parking Authority to create a plan to help commuters; she said resident would be notified of the plans once they are set.

Lepore said that West Orange residents are welcome to use the bus leaving from South Orange Train Station and that the township intends to have its jitney meet at least one early train going directly into New York City.

“We’re going to adapt our (jitney) schedule to the NJ Transit revised schedule. NJ Transit has promised us a revised schedule by no later than June 19,” Lepore said June 8, one day before NJ Transit did release that promised revised schedule. “We’re going to work with our vendor.”

Now that the schedule has been released, West Orange is working to ensure its jitney, which recently added a sixth route, accommodates commuters during this time.

In addition to the material preparations, the municipalities are also gearing up to improve collaboration and communication.

“I intend to keep open the lines of communication with NJ Transit, alternating between lobbying for more and better services and gathering as much operational information as possible so that we can present options to our residents,” DeLuca said.

Taylor shared similar sentiments.

“Our next steps are to remain in consistent communication with NJ Transit and provide critical information to our constituents as soon as we receive it to make the disruption as minimal as possible,” Taylor said.

Looking to get through this summer with the least possible negative impact, municipal officials are exploring everything within their arsenal to assist residents.

“Right now, our primary goal is to get through the ‘summer of hell’ the best we can trying to accommodate NJ Transit changes and working within our community with partners to see how we can facilitate ride sharing or programs or other creative ways we can support our commuters during these two months,” Collum said.

“After that, I have every intention of continuing to work with Mayor Victor DeLuca and other mayors to ensure we’re prepared and mobilized for any other changes coming down the line as it relates to deferred and much needed repairs. I hope this serves as a wakeup call to the governor, our legislature, Amtrak, and NJ Transit that adequately funding our transportation systems and coordination between agencies is paramount. If this process showed us anything it was how broken our system is and how poor planning can have devastating consequences on riders and the regional economy.”

But, while disappointed that area commuters are being unfairly burdened, some officials are pleased that work is being done to fix New York Penn Station’s infrastructure and are holding out hope that our towns can work with NJ Transit and get through this relatively unscathed.

“New Jersey is taking a step backwards, returning to the service we saw prior to June of 1996. There were no trains from our area straight to New York until June of ’96. I hope they step up to the plate and do a superb job of providing this service,” Lepore said. “I know a lot of people, a lot of officials, are concerned, are angry, but, look at some of the problems at Penn Station in New York and the service we’ve been seeing. Look at it as a good alternative, hopefully something better.”

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