WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange intends to expand its commuter jitney service to cover the Redwood and Pleasantdale sections of town in early 2017, according to Mayor Robert Parisi.
Parisi said the township is committed to adding a sixth route that incorporates Pleasant Valley Way and Eagle Rock Avenue so that the surrounding areas currently without access to the jitney can be serviced. An exact route has not yet been specified, he said. Any expansion of the West Orange jitney must be approved by the West Orange Township Council.
According to Parisi, the township has been planning to expand the jitney service to reach Redwood and Pleasantdale for years. In fact, he said the new route was supposed to be introduced last year, but West Orange’s tight budget made that impossible. It was always a priority though, the mayor said, because the township knew how valuable an additional route would be.
“We have grown into a large commuter town, where we have a commuter population living all over town,” Parisi told the West Orange Chronicle in a June 13 phone interview. “If we can provide the commuter population with a means of getting to work and getting to their lives, then that’s an important service that we should try to provide. And I do believe it benefits the community as a whole when we provide services that make us more attractive in the real estate market.”
News of the new jitney route comes after a group of residents from the Redwood and Pleasantdale neighborhoods made it known during the May 24 Township Council meeting that the service would make their lives easier while benefiting the entire community. And organizer Deena Rubin said that demonstration was only the beginning. Speaking with the Chronicle, Rubin said her group intends to continue pushing for a new jitney route until a new one actually comes to fruition.
“There’s been a lot of talk but no action, and it’s time for action and less talk,” Rubin said in a June 9 phone interview. “If the budget is already going to be worked on and submitted and proposed for next year, we want to be a part of that. We do not want to be overlooked once again.”
Rubin said her group has even mapped out its own idea for a route that would allow Redwood and Pleasantdale residents to be transported directly to Brick Church Station in East Orange, where they can then travel to New York City. The proposed route would start at Congregation AABJ&D and make stops at the corner of Pleasant Valley Way and Eagle Rock Avenue, B’nai Shalom, Woodland Avenue near the horse stables and possibly one other stop before proceeding to the station. She said the jitney would ideally make three to five trips throughout the day. Of course, she added that her group would be happy to work out another arrangement with township officials if this one is not possible.
The reason Rubin and her supporters want any such route stems largely from a lack of transportation convenience. West Orange’s current five-route jitney service covers approximately half the town, forcing all other community members to either drive to their train stations, catch a bus or find some other way of getting into New York. Rubin said this leaves residents who do not have the ability simply to hop on a jitney highly frustrated. And she should know — for more than a year, the Redwood area resident said she has had to organize her schedule around driving her daughter to and from the train station so her daughter can make it to her job in the city.
Additionally, Rubin said not having easy access to New York City is making the Redwood and Pleasantdale sections of town “less desirable” to potential homeowners. The real estate agent said one of the first things buyers looking at the two neighborhoods always ask about is whether the jitney passes through them. Having to say “no” is always disappointing, she said, because convenient transport to New York is an “asset” to every house in the surrounding area. Not having this often drives people away from Redwood and Pleasantdale in favor of other parts of West Orange or other towns entirely, she said.
“They become limited in their options (without a jitney), and people like options,” Rubin said, adding that she strongly believes having jitney service in Redwood and Pleasantdale will improve property values for those neighborhoods and make West Orange more attractive in general.
Rubin is not the only resident who believes a jitney route will have a positive impact on local real estate. Cindi Dressner said she knows of four houses that have not sold after being on the market for quite some time, and those are just on her street alone. This pains her because, as someone who loves West Orange, Dressner said she wants to see the township strengthen and grow. But that is not going to happen if the town’s jitney service does not reach all community members, Dressner said.
“Being not far from Manhattan doesn’t really help you without an affordable, convenient way to get there,” Dressner told the Chronicle in a June 10 phone interview, pointing out that her son spends a lot of time and money taking a bus to the train station every day.
Dressner also raised the issue of financial equity; though the commuter service covers only part of West Orange, all residents pay for it in their taxes. According to an April 2016 cost analysis of the service prepared by township CFO John Gross — which was provided to the Chronicle by Councilman Joe Krakoviak — the total cost of the jitney is $325,687.99, or $65,137.60 per route. That includes $34,853.52 for staffing per route; $3,926 for fuel per route; and $26,358.08 for other expenses per route.
While the township has said funding the service through tax dollars allows it to be free, Dressner said only the people who have access to the jitney can benefit. The fact that so many people who live in town are paying for a service that they cannot easily use is unfair, she said.
“Right now you’ve got some people in town getting a free ride and the other half of town getting no ride,” Dressner said. “That makes no sense.”
Much of West Orange’s Jewish community members already paying for services they do not use, with Rabbi Marc Spivak of Congregation Ohr Torah pointing out that many Jewish residents send their children to Jewish schools while still paying the township’s schools tax. He said they are now starting to ask why they have to pay for a jitney that they cannot use, in addition.
“We feel that we don’t ask for much, we pay a lot and we should have the same services that other parts of the community are given,” Spivak told the Chronicle in a June 10 phone interview.
Many local synagogues are indeed getting behind the push for a jitney route through Redwood and Pleasantdale. Spivak explained that temples need young Jewish families to move into the area to bolster their congregation’s ranks and keep their traditions alive. But after the synagogues met with several outside families to discuss moving into town, he said that they learned people were reluctant due to the lack of access to New York City. Adding a jitney service would solve the problem, the rabbi said.
Marc Spivak’s wife, Debra, said she hopes West Orange will listen to these concerns and expand the jitney service now that residents are letting their voices be heard. A daily commuter, she said it is time-consuming trying to get into and out of New York without direct access to the train. For parents of young children, she said it could even mean having to pay for an extra three hours of day care — time that could have otherwise been spent with their little ones.
Overall, Debra Spivak said adding an additional route will not only expedite the Manhattan commute, it will also send the message that West Orange is a viable option for families.
Parisi said he understands the residents’ frustrations after meeting with them over the past few years, but that economics simply prevented an additional route from being added before 2017. The township will definitely have to spend funds to make this route happen, with the mayor estimating that it will cost an additional $65,137.60 for the route, plus $80,000 to $90,000 for the jitney vehicle. That money will come out of taxes, he said. The township is looking for grants — like the NJ Transit grant that launched the West Orange jitney years ago — but he said there just are not many out there anymore for such a service.
Krakoviak has long advocated for an alternative source of funding — charging patrons for using the jitney. The councilman said residents currently pay more than $325,000 annually for only 260 riders, with costs “rising faster than ridership.” He said adding another route would increase the burden on community members, who are already paying a lot in taxes. But he said charging riders for the service would reduce the taxpayer subsidy, thus reducing property taxes and making West Orange a more attractive place to live.
The councilman said he does not know of any other Essex County community that does not charge for its jitney. And with the township having to decide which priorities such as the library to fund, on top of competing with neighboring towns to attract residential and commercial property owners, Krakoviak said West Orange should be wise about how it spends its tax dollars.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch or a free service,” Krakoviak told the Chronicle in a June 13 email. “For each ‘free service’ the town offers, the higher the taxes for property owners. I constantly hear from residents that the biggest challenge we face is high property taxes. Responsible government has to balance the services we offer with keeping our township affordable.”
According to Gross’ analysis, charging $3 per day would raise $202,800 in revenue and cover 56 percent of the jitney’s total operating cost. Charging $1 per day would raise 67,600, and cover 19 percent of the cost. Members of Rubin’s group said they would be willing to pay a jitney fee if it means getting an additional route, as long as all riders throughout the town are being charged.
Parisi acknowledged that the decision to charge for the jitney would be made by the council, but he said the administration currently has no plans to propose a service fee. The mayor explained that residents’ tax dollars have always funded programs that they might not use, such as senior services. Therefore he feels that charging for the jitney would not be fair.
“If we start charging people for the jitney, then we’ve got to start charging people for other services we provide,” Parisi said. “That’s not how government is routinely structured. And I’m not prepared to start charging for a service that we believe provides an incredible, intangible benefit to the real estate values of our community.”