NJ Transit fares poorly in bus rider survey done by advocacy group

A new survey by an influential mass transit advocacy group paints a dismal picture of the performance of NJ Transit’s bus system in its key mission — reliably getting people where they need to be at the time listed on the schedule.

Some 60% of riders on the state’s primary bus network told the Tri-State Transportation Campaign that their bus runs late at least three times a week, a problem that can blast a hole in their personal budgets and even threaten their jobs.

“Only thing I could say is, you better get here two hours early if you want to get there on time,” said rider Tanisha Rutledge, who says late buses cost her extra $30 to $40 every week.

“You can’t be late to work everyday, so it’s either call a taxi or be late to work,” she said. “So I have to suck it up and spend that $7 or $14 for me to get to work. You’re definitely spending more money on transportation than you make an hour. That’s for sure.”

Rutledge was one of some 250 NJ Transit customers who replied to Tri-State Transportation’s survey on bus service. Nearly one in four said their buses were late as many as seven times a week, and others reported that buses at times arrive at stops already full and don’t stop at all.

The complaints went beyond issues of reliability. More than half of those in the survey said their bus stops lack any shelter or even a bench.

Three-quarters of participants said they use buses to get to work. Among the reforms they’d like to see: 64% want more buses, especially longer, articulated buses, and 46% want to see more dedicated bus lanes.

Others would like to see a modern payment system replace the existing cash machine setup that can slow onboarding to a crawl and make service more reliable for the agency’s 478,000 daily bus riders.

“The survey underscores the importance of the bus network,” said Kevin Garcia, bus campaign manager for Tri-State, which has been heavily engaged in state mass transit issues in recent years. “We know NJ Transit has heard our call for better service, and that the bus system redesign efforts are on the way. “

NJ Transit responded to the survey in a statement: “NJ Transit regularly looks for innovative ways to identify service improvements and technological advances systemwide. We appreciate Tri-State’s advocacy and their recognition that transit requires robust resources.”

The agency is already planning to spend $100 million to replace its bus fleet. And at its regular monthly meeting, the agency is slated to vote on a $500 million spending package for more than 1,300 new city buses and almost 50 new and rebuilt train locomotives to be financed through an arrangement with the state Economic Development Authority.

The release of the survey comes at a time when the perpetually beleagued agency is facing heightened scrutiny from lawmakers and demands that it step up its game in all areas.

A select committee empaneled by Senate President Steve Sweeney is due to hold another in a series of public hearings Thursday. Its primary mission: find a way to pay for improving NJ Transit, without hitting riders with a fare increase.

NJ Transit’s own customer satisfaction survey from this spring shows bus riders gave the agency a 5.4 out of 10 rating on reliability. The score for overall satisfaction was 6 out of 10.

Elizabeth bus rider Hakima McNeal knows the system’s problems all too well. She works as a crossing guard and says her boss doesn’t want to hear about late buses, or the overall failings of NJ Transit.

“If you’re a little late, just a little late, you might as well just call out,” she said. “It doesn’t cut it. They’ll give me a 10 minute, five to 10 minute grace period. And if later than that, it was like, ‘don’t bother coming.’”

She tries to stay positive. But it’s hard.

“I try not to have an attitude when I get on the bus, try to make it as pleasant as possible,” she said. “But I believe there’s a lot more that they can do.”