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Asm. Benson Op-Ed: Building a Better Future for NJ TRANSIT Out of COVID-19 Crisis

As New Jersey residents are urged to work from home and avoid unnecessary travel, public buses and trains are emptier than ever before. I do want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the dedicated employees who are putting their lives on the line to keep the systems operational for other essential workers in this unprecedented time of crisis. NJ Transit and Port Authority’s PATH rail system officials report a 90% drop in ridership. Transit agencies expect to incur unprecedented losses in revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although this crisis has stressed an already troubled system, there are reasons to be hopeful for New Jersey’s mass transit system and opportunities beyond the crisis.

New Jersey will receive $1.76 billion in federal funding to aid transit systems as part of the federal COVID-19 stimulus package, the CARES Act. The $25 billion allocated to transit agencies is almost triple what’s normally budgeted through Federal Transit Administration programs.

For a historically underfunded agency like NJ Transit, which has been trying to claw its way back from years of neglect, this much-needed infusion of funding should be viewed as a relief and an opportunity for growth.

An overwhelming majority of this funding will be crucial to helping NJ Transit stay afloat during this public health crisis. It will help fill the gaps left by the steep decline in ridership and modified schedules, while still allowing the agency to serve essential workers who depend on access to public transportation. It will also cover new cleaning and sanitization expenses for public buses, trains and stations.

It’s my hope that NJ Transit will also use a portion of this money to help plan for its future. This public health emergency won’t last forever. When commuters do return to work and school, they deserve better service from NJ Transit. The agency should use these new federal funds and lull in service to make critical improvements, both in infrastructure and in the culture of communications to its riders.

We are already seeing NJ Transit take advantage of unoccupied rail lines and train cars by ramping up testing of the federally mandated safety system known as positive train control (PTC). NJ Transit has been slow to implement PTC. Now NJT could have a chance to meet its Dec. 31, 2020 deadline to complete the project. This is also a time to expedite the long-delayed Portal Bridge replacement.

There are sure to be more opportunities for NJ Transit to be the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes. The Legislature laid out recommendations during a series of hearings with NJ Transit last year, from developing a five-year plan to improving the bus system to addressing staffing shortages. Improving communication between NJ Transit and riders should continue to be a top priority as the agency works toward enhancing customer service and overall experiences. Now is the time to focus more on those efforts.

Let’s not squander this opportunity to build a better future for NJ Transit. When we reach the end of this crisis, thousands of commuters will want to know their first train back to work will be one that is on time.

Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer, Middlesex) represents the 14th legislative district in the New Jersey General Assembly. He chairs the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee.