Transit advocates want more details on NJ Transit COVID plans

As more New Jersey businesses are set to open up June 15, a new Tri-State Transportation survey of more than 1,000 riders shows 92% would come back but only if the agency makes them feel safe.

“What riders really want to feel is that the agency is doing everything they can to protect them from the transmission of COVID,” said Janna Chernetz.

Chernetz says riders want more frequent service to reduce crowding, increased cleaning and masking.

“This is something that NJ Transit’s going to have to work on, on a daily basis. They’re going to have to rely on employees to communicate when the proper precautions are not being taken, as well as riders reporting when they’re not seeing proper precautions or when they’re not feeling comfortable,” she said.

“We don’t know if they’re being cleaned at the end of each run, or are they doing it once a day as a deep cleaning. Because if you clean a metal surface, the second somebody’s hand touches it, it’s dirty,” said Len Resto, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers.

Advocates have questions. The agency’s CEO Kevin Corbett reported NJ Transit resumed full, regular bus service Monday. But is that enough to promote social distancing as more people head back to work? Rail ridership remains sparse so the agency’s still running fewer trains.

Gov. Phil Murphy says NJ Transit’s got a complete safety plan for reopening.

“It fully includes actions to give customers and transit operators confidence as we begin our restart and recovery, including enhanced cleaning, social distancing, and the use of personal protective equipment among both customers and employees, enhanced communications, and greater cooperation with our regional transit partners to defend against the spread of the virus and share best practices,” Murphy said during Monday’s daily press briefing.

Meanwhile, NJ Transit must still confront its reputation for rush-hour debacles, late trains and cancellations. Monday it unveiled two long-awaited road maps for the agency’s future. A first-ever 10-year strategic plan focuses on safer, more reliable customer-oriented service. It sets measurable goals, like a 95% on-time bus and rail performance within three years, and zero “preventable” cancellations within five years.

“Right now, we have an agency that has been working just really in the here-and-now, and that’s not working. This is what was missing,” Chernetz said.

“I can tell you that, despite current challenges, I have never been more optimistic about the future of NJ Transit,” Corbett said during Monday’s press briefing.

That vision’s partnered with a new 5-year capital plan which lists $17 billion worth of projects — many already underway. They include a zero-emission bus fleet, new multi-level rail cars and an overhaul of the Hoboken Terminal. While some projects are funded, the plan still needs another $5.7 billion.

“NJ Transit’s 5- and 10-year plans, I mean, where is the money coming from?” asked Resto.

And with the state facing a $10 billion budget hole, legislators have pretty much back-burnered extra subsidies and dedicated funding, for now.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg has serious questions about the 5- and 10-year plans.

“Was it presented to the NJ Transit board? Did they have a chance to give input into this plan? And since they’re spending more money than they have, will the board get an opportunity to help with the priorities?” Weinberg asked. “Will the NJ Transit board ask for public hearings? I mean, this was kind of dropped on the public.”

NJ Transit’s eligible for $1.4 billion from the federal CARES Act, but that will only help pay for its current COVID costs. The governor hopes to borrow some $5 billion from the Federal Reserve. Otherwise, officials predict the system’s in for a very rocky ride.