New Jersey Mass Transit Moves More Passengers
Ridership on the state's public transit systems is on the rise, but will public funding catch up and keep up?
By Tara Nurin, NJ Spotlight
Public transportation is riding high, with nearly record-breaking ridership that reflects the shifting economy, the high price of gas, and the lifestyle of the young and creative classes. Last year, passenger traffic across the United States rose to its second-highest level since 1957, and in New Jersey, all four public and private rail transit systems are witnessing a steady increase.
But the growing importance of public transportation in New Jersey is not matched by an equally accelerated growth in public funding. In fact, state funding has been more or less flat for the past few years -- with the exception of the cancellation of the ARC tunnel, which would have built a third rail tunnel between New Jersey and NYC. New projects are on the boards. There has been an increased call for transit hubs, villages, and other smart-growth staples. Indeed the state plan strongly recommends investment in transit-related projects.
But whether any -- or all -- of these will translate into more funds for public transportation remains to be seen.
What can be seen is the hive of activity that is New Jersey's mass transit sector.
Amtrak has reached its ninth ridership record in ten years. Although the company is in the midst of planning enhanced New Jersey service, including building a tunnel across the Hudson River, it is expected to take at least 10 years before it's in service.
New Jersey trails only New York in percentage of commuters who use public transportation (and boasts the third-longest average auto commute in the nation). PATH ridership broke its all-time record in 2011. In South Jersey, PATCO carried more passengers than at any time since 2000, and NJ Transit’s fourth quarter numbers grew six percent over the year before. But conventional commuters don’t tell the whole story. “A lot of our increase in ridership is the non-traditional commuter,” said John Rink, general manager of the PATCO system between Jersey and Philadelphia.
“More young folks are using public transportation, and they’re using it for social purposes: to go out in the city for nightlife and attractions. When you consider the cost of driving, paying the bridge toll and parking, they’re finding public transportation to have more value,” he said.
Indeed, a AAA automobile club survey found that steep gas prices are compelling 14 percent of drivers to use public transportation more often, and 23 percent said they would continue to do so if prices remain high.
And while gas prices may seem like the most obvious driver for using public transportation, the state’s transit officials are also pointing to rising employment; a stronger economic climate overall; increased marketing efforts at NJ Transit; a new fleet of PATH cars and upgrades to its stations; and even mild winter weather.
Transportation and land-use planners predict that favoring public transit is a phenomenon that’s much less fleeting than the fluctuation in gas prices or employment trends. Instead, they largely credit young and creative workers for choosing to live in walkable municipalities with a variety of leisure activities and available transit options for easy access to other, often larger municipalities. What they expect is a future transit-oriented developments (TODs), which are communities that cluster living, working, and shopping spaces within one-quarter mile of a transit hub.
Lucy Vandenberg, executive director of PlanSmart NJ, said the creative class, which makes up 35 percent of America’s workforce “will move to a place first then look for a job second.”
They want to be with other people who are interesting, where things are happening, and transportation is a big part of it,” she said.
New Jersey is ahead of most other states in terms of its network of public transit routes and the layout of the communities that host its stations, said Tim Evans, research director for New Jersey Future. Thanks to its relatively compact size and history as an older industrialized state anchored on both ends by well-established, major commercial centers, New Jersey is crisscrossed by rail and bus lines, and its population is familiar with the concept of living and working near transit hubs. With some inexpensive rehabbing of older properties and some targeted new development, he said, “I feel like New Jersey in general is reawakening to a resource bequeathed to us from the pre-highway era.”