Commuter advocates warn of lingering disparities, with hurdles on horizon
Passengers board a New Jersey Transit train at Pennsylvania Station on April 26, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Lawmakers who oversee the state’s transportation systems got a clear message from advocates Monday: Our transit networks still have a long way to go.
“To determine if New Jersey has achieved transit equity, one must ask a simple question of riders: Do you have the same mobility freedom as someone with access to a car?” said Janna Chernetz, New Jersey policy director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Unless and until that answer is yes, we have failed to build an equitable transportation and transit network.”
At a hearing called to help set the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee agenda for this legislative session, activists pointed to a dearth of last-mile services, vacant customer advocacy positions at NJ Transit, and disproportionate impacts on the state’s most vulnerable residents to say the answer for New Jersey is still no.
“The common theme from both the employer and the employee is the inability to get to the job,” Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, who is also the Somerset County administrator, told the committee. “These are our lower-wage earners that are sometimes working multiple jobs on top of it.”
Commuter rail ridership tumbled amid the COVID-19 crisis. Bus ridership also fell, but not as much, if only because many of those riders could not afford to stop going to work.
Compounding the problem: Low-income residents are less likely to have access to a vehicle and more likely to rely on public transportation that often fails to meet their needs.
The problem isn’t confined to communities far from NJ Transit rail stations. Commuters can have trouble reaching their jobs even with a train or bus station nearby. Ride-share providers can help workers bridge that last-mile gap, but they can be too costly for some riders.
Advocates pointed to on-demand shuttle services as a more fitting solution, and existing shuttle programs have shown some success in communities of varying density, but their longevity is far from assured.
Take the South Jersey shuttle program operated by Cross County Connection. The nonprofit operates a shuttle service in New Jersey’s seven southernmost counties that can connect residents with regional NJ Transit bus lines and Atlantic City’s rail station.
Most of its shuttle riders, about 75%, use the service to get to work, and about 70% do not have access to a vehicle, Cross County Connection Executive Director Ronda Urkowitz said.
During the pandemic, Urkowitz said, the shuttles retained 33% more of their ridership than regional transit networks like PATCO and SEPTA.
“That’s because our passengers work in essential services. They simply had no choice,” Urkowitz said. “If they wanted to collect a paycheck, they had to go to work, and because so many of them don’t have a car, they had to take the shuttle.”
Rider surveys showed many of Cross County Connection’s customers reported they would be unable to get to work without the shuttles, and many regular riders were unemployed before the system launched, Urkowitz said.
But the system operates on matching grants provided through NJ Transit, and that funding could be at risk with the looming shutdown of the Pascale Sykes Foundation, which provided matching funds to Cross County Connection and which plans to shutter its doors at the end of 2022.
“If we lose our match money, we lose our NJ Transit grants,” Urkowitz said.
Multiple advocates called for lawmakers to fill vacant seats on the NJ Transit Board. Four of the board’s seats are empty, including two seats reserved for commuters that have not been filled since their creation in 2018.
NJ Transit’s customer advocate position has also remained vacant since Stewart Mader, the only person to ever hold the role, left the agency amid claims that he cared more for the agency’s reputation than he did for its riders. A job posting for his replacement has since been marked closed.
Chernetz, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign policy director, was nominated to one of the vacant NJ Transit board seats in January 2020 but had her nomination pulled months later.
“Both positions place greater emphasis on the rider, and their perspective and voices matter because they are the customers who invest in the system,” she said.
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