Memo to NJ Transit: Fix Bus Service or Face Continuing Decline in Riders

Leah Mishkin, NJTV News | September 27, 2019 | Transportation
Tri-State Transportation Campaign releases report calling for realigning the bus-service network, more express bus lanes, among other recommendations

NJ Transit must make sweeping updates to its bus operations or face the continuation of a decade-long decline in riders on its most used mass-transit service, according to the report of an influential advocacy group.

“More customers ride bus than rail; however, bus does not get the attention it deserves,” said Janna Chernetz, deputy director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which released its report titled “A New Ride for New Jersey — Building a Better Bus System” at a press conference Thursday in front of NJ Transit headquarters in Newark.

Roughly 478,000 people board the agency’s buses every day, nearly double the riders on NJ Transit’s trains. But that reflects a 7.3% decline in daily bus passengers since 2009, according to the report.

“Why are people leaving the bus?” asked Nick Sifuentes, the group’s executive director. “Bus service isn’t taking people where they need to go reliably and buses aren’t coming on time for riders.”

Among the group’s recommendations are realigning the bus service network, adding express bus lanes on roads, streamlining fare structures, committing to an all-electric fleet, and making improvements at bus stops, including shelters, Wi-Fi and emergency call buttons.

No big changes since 1979

Sifuentes said the agency’s bus system has not seen major changes since it was created in 1979.

“A lot of our bus routes are decades old. Some of them date back to the era of the streetcar,” he said. “Well, you know what? Commuting patterns have changed since then. Where people live and where they’re going is completely different.”

Rider Sherry Rollins is perhaps the embodiment of the agency’s problems. She relies on NJ Transit buses to get to church on Sundays, and there are only two buses available to get her there on time.

“If I miss those two buses, it’s another 45 minutes for me to catch another bus,” the Linden resident said. “Either that or I walk.”

Among the report’s top recommendations is for the state to rethink how NJ Transit is funded.

“The biggest obstacle standing in the way of substantive improvements to NJ Transit’s service is a lack of dedicated and reliable funding sources,” the report reads, adding that for 20 years, Trenton has failed to supply adequate resources, causing the agency to neglect capital needs in favor of operating expenses. “This cannibalistic funding practice must be abandoned and the state and agency must work together to establish dedicated funding streams.”

Specifics recommendations

The report says NJ Transit should redesign its service network to better serve the needs of the riding public. Specifically, it says the agency should provide more connections to hubs where riders can switch to trains and light-rail lines, expand rapid transit service and re-balance the spacing of bus stops to increase speeds. NJ Transit buses now stop at 16,100 separate locations.

Dedicated bus lanes speed service and make it more reliable, according to the report. But in all of New Jersey, there are only eight miles of dedicated lanes, while New York City has 120.

The report calls for the agency to stop buying diesel buses and to transition to an all-electric fleet by 2040, the goal set by New York’s MTA.

“NJ Transit needs to invest in electric buses beginning in 2022,” said Norah Langweiler of the Jersey Renews advocacy group, “with low income and environmental justice communities as priority communities.”

NJ Transit said it is moving forward with a pilot electric bus program in Camden in 2021. The agency also said it does regularly monitor and adjust service to maximize availability throughout the state.

As for modernizing fares, the report recommends introducing a flat fare for intrastate bus service, free transfers, and incorporating more discount programs for college students, low-income residents and seniors.

Service would also improve if the agency added more ways for riders to pay. Such options would include “letting people pay their fares with a tap card or their smart phone when they get on the bus or even before they get on the bus so the buses move faster,” Sifuentes said.

Both NJ Transit and the office of Gov. Phil Murphy released statements saying they would take the report into consideration to help make NJ Transit’s bus system better.

Meanwhile, in other news of interest to commuters, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Thursday approved hikes in its tolls, fares and fees at its bridges, tunnels and airports.