WEST ORANGE, NJ — The leader of a local advocacy group that pushed for a jitney line covering the Redwood and Pleasantdale neighborhoods last year is now urging the township to consult with residents before finalizing its route.
Deena Rubin, founder of the Shuttle Advocates for Redwood and Pleasantdale group, told the West Orange Township Council during its May 9 meeting that her group is eager to share its feedback with the administration as it maps out the route. In fact, Rubin said several members of SHARP took hours out of their schedules to plan a route of their own, using their experience as commuters.
But when Rubin has contacted the township about setting up a meeting, she said she has been told the administration is not ready to meet with SHARP because it is still planning the route. As a result, she said her group feels “dismissed” from the process because the planning stage is exactly when input should be considered.
“We’re not looking to be a problem for you guys — we want to help solve what’s in front of us,” Rubin said at the meeting. “We just want our commentary, our sitting down, our time and consideration for this particular route.”
Rubin was not the only who felt that way. The SHARP leader showed a video during her special presentation that featured 16 residents — including council President Joe Krakoviak —discussing why it is crucial for group members to work with the administration in developing the route. Afterward, several more residents stressed to the council in the public comment portion of the meeting that such collaboration should happen in order to find the best possible route.
One such resident was Robert Grosberg, who said listening to residents’ input would be “extremely valuable.” Hearing out their suggestions would cost the township nothing, Grosberg pointed out, and the administration might learn something as a result. But speaking from the perspective of a COO and CIO, he said waiting to meet with the community until after a plan has been put together is not helpful.
“It’s a lot easier building things up from the start than having to change them once they’re in place,” Grosberg said.
Ellie Langer agreed that now is the time to seek the advice of those who will actually be using a Redwood and Pleasantdale jitney. The resident said that in her work as a computer-applications designer, she always consults with target users when starting a project so she can understand what they want.
Langer said the administration should do the same so it can ensure the route will be something commuters will really use.
“We all know that building something correctly from the beginning is a lot cheaper than trying to fix something later on, and I think that approach applies to all new projects,” Langer said. “It’s hard for me to understand the logic of not soliciting all the input up front before coming together with a plan.”
Krakoviak said it also made sense to him why the administration should meet with SHARP sooner rather than later, pointing out that such collaborations happen all the time in the business world. He hopes the township will reconsider, especially after listening to the comments made during the council meeting.
“I still haven’t heard a good reason for the administration not to meet with the group before finalizing their plan, but I did hear a lot of good reasons to meet with them before the plan is finalized,” Krakoviak said, adding that he hopes the administration will be open to “meeting with SHARP just as soon as possible.”
But Jack Sayers, the township business administrator, maintained that the administration has to have a plan in place before accommodating any suggestions, explaining that planning for a route as large as the Redwood and Pleasantdale line, which he said will probably cover half of West Orange, is more complicated than hearing out ideas and mapping things out. He said it requires consideration of traffic patterns and travel times, and takes a lot of route testing with an actual bus to make sure it works effectively.
After a route is decided upon and Mayor Robert Parisi rolls it out, Sayers said residents will be given the chance to share their opinions. But he stressed that the township must plan the route on its own first in order to come up with the most satisfactory one possible.
“What we’re trying to do is make it acceptable to all the people in this township, not just a certain few,” Sayers said. “We’ve learned some lessons over the last couple of shuttle runs that we’ve put together, and we want to make sure that we’re going to put the best run together that’s going to accommodate the most people.”
Other than Krakoviak, the council members agreed with Sayers. Councilman Jerry Guarino said the administration must listen to the advice of experts, such as township engineer Leonard Lepore, at this point instead of relying on feedback from commuters. Once a plan is in place, Guarino said he would be in favor of holding community meetings where people could comment on the route. Residents just have to be patient because the process in not at that point yet, he said.
Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said she can understand how frustrating it is for SHARP to wait, but feels the township has to create a plan before residents can offer input. And considering how challenging it is to get from the Redwood section of town to I-280, she said it is no wonder the administration is still working on the plan.
Casalino added that she feels badly that SHARP members think they’ve been dismissed, but she cannot understand why they believe that when she herself has been keeping Rubin updated for a while now. She is also in favor of holding a community meeting once the route is completed, but cautioned that not every idea can be incorporated.
“You can’t make everybody happy,” Casalino said. “Hopefully, the compromise will be something that we’ll all be satisfied with.”
Councilman Victor Cirilo said the township should do a better job of communicating with SHARP on the route’s progress. But Cirilo also said he felt SHARP was “a bit slanderous” in implying that the administration is refusing to meet with the group when the administration has already promised to seek SHARP’s input when the route is finished. In addition, he said Parisi has an “impeccable” record when it comes to consulting with residents on issues that affect them, so he is sure the mayor would be willing to talk with SHARP. Basically, Cirilo said, the group members should know that they are not being ignored.
“You’ve been heard,” Cirilo said. “You’ll be considered. And no one is being dismissed.”
In response, Rubin stressed that she did not intend to be adversarial in making her presentation. She even offered to edit the council majority into her video after Guarino lamented that she had not asked anyone other than Krakoviak to be interviewed for it. But the SHARP founder also urged council members to involve her group in the planning process before a route is finalized.
Otherwise, Rubin said SHARP will continue to feel left out.
“We don’t want to feel dismissed,” Rubin said. “Up until now we’ve had a collaboration, and we felt that there was a little bit of a joint effort. Now we feel like we’re being pushed into a corner, and it doesn’t feel good.”
Sayers told the West Orange Chronicle that the route is still being put together, as of press time May 16.
Photos by Sean Quinn