Train delays and derailments are not the only problems plaguing New Jersey Transit these days – there are delays and overcrowding on buses as well. To address those concerns, Gov. Phil Murphy wants to boost funding for NJ Transit bus operations so the agency can hire more drivers.
Yesterday Murphy and NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett outlined a $19 million hiring initiative that’s tied to the state budget he’s proposed for the 2019 fiscal year. The hiring plan calls for 40 new agency bus drivers, along with more rail, light rail, police, and administrative employees, which should help NJ Transit address both bus overcrowding and on-time performance across the state, he said.
“As part of the budget we’ve proposed, bus riders can hope for better days and better rides ahead,” Murphy said during an event at NJ Transit’s central maintenance facility in Newark.
The focus on improving the bus service came as the agency’s trains were once again experiencing long delays heading to and from New York City yesterday morning, thanks largely to problems with the aging infrastructure that it shares with Amtrak. Such problems typically force more commuters to use NJ Transit buses, giving just a flavor of what things could look like on a regular basis if the type of long-term rail-infrastructure problems that transportation advocates often warn about were to occur.
Crowded with commuters
But often overlooked is just how many riders are already using the agency’s buses each day across the state, who now make up nearly 60 percent of NJ Transit’s overall customer base. The buses also typically serve lower-income communities where fewer people own cars and have to rely more heavily on mass transit to get around than in the suburbs. In many places in South Jersey, the only available public transportation is the NJ Transit buses.
“For all of the discussion on rail, it’s buses that make the show go in urban centers, in urban communities, and in transit hubs,” Murphy said. “It is literally the lifeblood of this state.”
Yesterday’s event was just the latest for the Democratic governor as he continues to hit the road to sell the $37.4 billion state budget plan for fiscal 2019 that he put forward last month. In all, Murphy’s budget would increase spending by nearly 8 percent compared with the budget signed into law last July by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, and he’s calling for a series of tax hikes to help support the higher spending.
Part of the sales pitch that Murphy has been making for his budget is that the increased spending will allow the state to make critical investments in key areas like public education and mass transit that often generate more economic growth. The increased haul for NJ Transit is nearly $170 million as Murphy is both boosting funding out of the budget’s general fund and also reducing a reliance on one-time sources of revenue like funds raided from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
Murphy on the train
Last month, Murphy and Corbett detailed how the extra budget funding would boost the agency’s beleaguered rail system, including by allowing for service enhancements and facility upgrades. Yesterday, they detailed how the budget would impact bus operations, with Corbett saying the push to hire 40 new bus drivers is already underway.
Recruiting events are scheduled to be held tomorrow in Maplewood, and on May 1 and May 24 at Bergen Community College in Paramus. The agency’s bus drivers earn between $16.90 and $28.16 per hour, and they are also provided full health benefits.
“Get the word out,” Corbett said of the bus-driver hiring initiative.
Meanwhile, Murphy’s budget would also provide funding to address several of the agency’s most overcrowded bus routes, marking the “first time in decades” that such a relief effort is being launched, Corbett said. They include routes 156, 158, and 159 along the River Road corridor in Bergen County; routes 126 and 123 in Hudson County; and routes 113 and 114 in Union County. The new funding should also help the agency improve on-time performance along other bus routes in both north and South Jersey, including the 81, 83, 84, 190, 410, 412, 603, and 606 routes, Corbett said.
The effort to improve the agency’s bus operations drew praise yesterday from Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who both attended the event with Murphy and Corbett.
Where the riders are
According to ridership statistics compiled by the agency last year, NJ Transit buses have 265,550 average weekday riders, which is nearly 60 percent of its overall customer base. By contrast, the agency’s rail and light-rail services have a combined 180,425 average weekday customers, which is about 40 percent of the customer base.
“This is not an amenity, this is a necessity,” Diegnan said of the bus operations. “This is how people get to work, this is how families survive, taking buses.”
Baraka said in his community the majority of the residents rely on public transportation, with buses the service that’s most often used.
“Taking kids to school, taking parents to work, making sure they have access to all of the growing opportunities that are happening here in our city,” Baraka said. “This is an opportunity for Newark that we are embracing and are very, very excited about.”