Concerns about social distancing on some NJ Transit buses

Riders on some NJ Transit bus lines are complaining that reductions in service during the COVID-19 crisis are forcing them to ride crowded buses, and exposing them to unsafe violations of the state’s orders on social distancing.

With overall usage down some 90% amid state-at-home orders and facing manpower shortages, the agency has slashed service.

Trains are running mostly empty, on a holiday schedule. But riders on some intercity routes say they routinely encounter crowds on the few buses that are in service. Some have taken to Twitter to get heard.

NJ Transit has taped off sections of seats in the front of buses to keep drivers safe, leaving some buses with only standing room in the back.

“This is totally unsafe and unacceptable!” one rider on the 6:33 into NYC tweeted. Another ranted, “Only person practicing social distancing is the driver.” And another: “They’re spreading it, and not fighting it. This is not social distancing Gov. Murphy!”

During his daily press briefing on the crisis, Murphy said he was aware that NJ Transit was facing challenges. But he said its service is critical, providing the only means for some essential employees to get to work.

“There still are a lot of essential folks who are using buses, in particular to get to — a health care worker, by example — to get to a hospital,” he said Tuesday at the War Memorial in Trenton.

In particular, he categorically ruled out any wholesale shutdown of the system.

Murphy did say, though, that he wanted to hear from riders and others who witness overcrowded buses and other violations of social distancing rules. “If folks are having that experience, go on our website and let us know, explicitly which route that was,” he said.

At the same time, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg is calling on the agency to do what’s needed to resolve the overcrowding. Her district is in Bergen County, the epicenter of New Jersey’s COVID-19 outbreak, and the home of 263 of the state’s 1,232 deaths. Many of her constituents are essential workers who rely heavily on bus transportation, she said.

“They are health care workers and grocery store clerks and warehouse workers,” she said, noting that she’s seen the riders’ posts on Twitter. “They are people who need to get to their jobs and we have a responsibility to make sure that they — and the driver of the bus — gets there as safely as possible.”

Transit advocate Janna Chernetz, who’s been nominated to serve on the NJ Transit board, emphasized how even a limited issue can have big consequences during a pandemic.

“If it’s a problem for one, it’s a problem for all,” said Chernetz, the director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “We all understand how the virus spreads. So impacting one or two buses could have a very large ripple effect and that could easily allow the disease to spread. This needs to be a 100% customer- and employee-satisfaction targeted goal.”

NJ Transit says it’s struggling with manpower issues — 82 staffers have tested positive and another 571 are quarantined. Another 159 have returned to work. The agency’s got enough protective gear for front line workers, but not enough drivers, CEO Kevin Corbett said, when the agency’s board held a livestreamed meeting Tuesday.

“While we’ve been able to strategically target select trips on some bus routes with added service. Like transit agencies across the country, we simply don’t have the manpower to add more service,” he said.

Corbett says it can be difficult to adapt to changes in bus ridership. On a follow-up phone call with reporters, he noted though that the agency is adding 50 extra trips on some routes.

He asked for the public’s help.

“The most important thing we ask people is, only essential workers,” he said. “We can’t emphasize that enough. And for those who have to wait for another bus, if it’s not inconvenient to wait for a bus get an earlier bus. Use some common sense.”

The agency is also asking riders to wear masks.

Corbett said NJ Transit’s problems are not unique. “With limited crews and limited buses available, I think all the transit systems, including us, look for major routes where if we have some flexibility we can throw some buses on,” he said.

But Weinberg, who has been a frequent critic of the agency since well before the COVID-19 crisis, believes the state’s main mass transit agency still needs to step up its game.

“NJ Transit says it doesn’t have the manpower,” she said. “Well, then, they’re going to have to call people in for extra hours. There are other options which we can discuss. They can call in private bus companies.”