New Jersey Transit bus drivers will soon no longer have to rely on just their mirrors to see what’s going on around them. Officials announced yesterday that the agency is spending $29 million to outfit buses with special cameras that will give drivers a 360-degree view of their surroundings.
The safety initiative is being funded through a $400 million supplemental appropriation from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund that won final approval from Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers earlier this year. The appropriation was made possible after Christie and lawmakers worked together in 2016 to renew the TTF with a 23-cent gas-tax hike that went into effect last November.
Christie — a second-term Republican who has faced criticism from transportation advocates for not providing more funding to NJ Transit during his tenure — attended a news conference held at an agency facility in Newark yesterday to personally announce the new initiative.
“To be able to have a 360-degree view of the bus and its surroundings at any time while the bus is operating is something that will make our drivers safer, make our passengers safer, and make those people who are either driving other vehicles, or are pedestrians around those buses even more safe,” Christie said.
While an estimated 472,000 customers ride NJ Transit trains on an average weekday, another roughly 270,000 customers use NJ Transit buses during the week, according to the agency. Officials started looking at the bus-camera technology earlier this year as part of a broader effort to improve safety for the bus routes, and the passage of the TTF supplemental appropriation in March enabled the 360-degree camera project to move forward, said Mike Kilcoyne, the agency’s vice president of bus operations.
The wide-angle cameras will be mounted on the front and rear of the buses, as well as both sides, to provide a single image that the driver will be able to see on a monitor.
“You can literally see all around in real time,” Kilcoyne said while standing outside one of the agency’s buses.
Regular bus riders can expect to see the new technology on the agency’s buses starting this fall, but outfitting all 2,500 new and existing buses could take up to five years, he said.
The $29 million for the bus cameras is coming out of a $140 million pot of money that was made available to NJ Transit for capital projects after Christie and lawmakers approved the overall $400 million TTF supplemental appropriation in March. The same supplemental spending bill is also funding the next stage in planning for the proposed expansion of light rail into Bergen County, and several other mass-transit capital projects.
The remaining $260 million from the supplemental appropriation is funding dozens of road and bridge projects across the state that are being overseen by the Department of Transportation.
This year’s additional funding for state transportation projects became available after Christie worked with Democratic legislative leaders last year to hike the state gas tax to help renew the TTF with an eight-year, $16 billion finance plan. But when the 2017 fiscal year began last July, Christie and the legislative leaders were still at odds over the gas-tax issue, with Christie insisting that a sales-tax cut be passed along with any hike of the gas tax.
The governor also ordered a shutdown of state-funded transportation projects last summer to preserve the TTF’s dwindling funds for only emergency repairs during the political impasse, sidelining thousands of construction workers during what should have been the busy season for road work.
Christie and lawmakers eventually reached a deal to renew the TTF last fall, several days after a fatal NJ Transit train crash at Hoboken Terminal. Their agreement included a sales-tax reduction and other phased-in tax cuts along with the 23-cent gas-tax increase. The deal also called for annual state spending on transportation to increase from $1.6 billion to $2 billion, but since it was struck after the new fiscal year began, only $1.6 billion was originally appropriated by the Legislature for transportation projects.
The $400 million supplemental appropriation that was approved in March brought TTF spending back up to the full, $2 billion mark that was agreed to by Christie and lawmakers last year. The same $2 billion in TTF capital spending is planned for the 2018 fiscal year, and Christie’s proposed fiscal year 2018 state budget also holds state funds for NJ Transit’s operating budget flat, at $427 million.
But that hasn’t stopped Christie from taking criticism from transportation advocates and others for not investing more aggressively in NJ Transit, especially in light of recent problems that regular rail commuters have been experiencing in the wake of two recent derailments at Penn Station in New York. Though the station is owned by the federal government, it is used by NJ Transit for direct access into New York, and commuters are now bracing for expected service disruptions this summer as Amtrak starts to make a series of overdue repairs.
That’s made NJ Transit a key target for Democratic candidates who are running this year to replace the term-limited Christie, with several saying during a recent debate that they would go to greater lengths than Christie has to get the agency more funding. They’ve also roundly criticized Christie’s 2010 decision to cancel the long-planned Access to the Region’s Core trans-Hudson rail-tunnel project over concerns that the project would run over budget and put New Jersey taxpayers on the hook for any overruns. That project, which would have taken NJ Transit passengers to a new terminus located less than half a mile from Penn Station, was originally projected to open in 2018.