Public transit is failing NJ’s seniors and disabled, advocates testify

Gina Marie Williams wept with frustration, struggling to tell Transportation Committee members what it feels like to be disabled by a brain injury and stranded alone and scared in a dark parking lot when your ride is an hour late.

“I not maybe have all the right words to be tell you how important this is to get us proper, complete transportation service so we able to have freedom for our lives,” she said.

She talked about how drivers sometimes treat her.

“That I’m not even human, because some of the folks are not polite, they’re not cordial. I’m still me. I’m still me, I just happened to survive accident that gave me brain injury. So please help because I want to stay healthy, and I want to get out and I want to live. Thank you much,” said Williams.

“Thank you so much, Gina Marie. I think you illustrate why this is important,” said Assemblyman Dan Benson, who chairs the committee. “And given the number of gaps in the system here, we’re adding to both the health problems — both physically and mentally — and that just shouldn’t be the case.”

The Paratransit system, run by each of 21 counties, is the backbone of transportation service for seniors and the disabled. But advocates explained their funding’s down by half since 2008, from $36.9 million to $17.8 million last year, because it’s tied to Atlantic City’s Casino Revenue Fund. When Atlantic City tanked, some counties made up the difference but some didn’t. Advocates want a more stable funding source.

“New Jersey’s Human Services Community Transportation is in serious financial crisis which is affecting every county, municipality and social service agency in the state,” said Michael Vieira, president of New Jersey Council on Special Transportation.

That, as New Jersey’s senior population keeps growing. The AARP says the over-65 cohort is expected to almost double by 2050 and will increase from 15.8 percent to 28 percent of the state population. Experts recommended communities begin planning for public transit access around retirement communities.

“You are sitting on a time bomb. A mobility crisis is looming. You need to think about it. There are more and more people who will be depending on NJ Transit, on county services, on paratransit, on mobility through modes other than automobiles,” said David Peter Alan, Lackawanna Coalition chair.

“It is a serious issue and thank you for bringing that to us today to talk about it again because we have to be responsible and we have to do something about it,” said Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce.

Moreover, the current system’s plagued by a lack of coordination. Most county transportation services stop dead at the county line, even if a rider’s destination is over the border. NJ Transit Access Link does go statewide, but the two don’t always connect.

“This requires a coordination between the individual, the county paratransit and Access Link so that it can be used in an efficient manner,” said Mary Ciccone, managing attorney for Disability Rights New Jersey.

The committee will prepare a set of recommendations — changes to regulations, better organization, perhaps a request for more funding — to help remove barriers for seniors and the disabled.

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