ATLANTIC CITY — The public meeting called by NJ Transit big wigs was held last Thursday evening in the cavernous train station left dormant since September by the suspension of the Atlantic City rail line.
There was no heat, according to participants, no microphones or speakers so that anyone could be heard, no chairs on which to sit, and, of course, still no trains entering or leaving the station.
Most frustrating, according to public officials, local entrepreneurs, and commuters who rely on the train line, there were no answers as to when service will resume.
“They brought pens,” said Atlantic County Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick, one of several elected officials who attended the meeting, including local state legislators and newly elected U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew.
“Atlantic County, Southern New Jersey, the southern counties, clearly are not a priority,” Fitzpatrick said. “They kept saying they had to make statewide decisions. They couldn’t just focus on our line or the Princeton line.”
Fitzpatrick said NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett and other transit officials arrived unprepared. Corbett repeatedly referred to the fact that he has only been on the job a short time, Fitzpatrick and others said.
“They didn’t bring a microphone or any kind of sound system,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you weren’t standing right there in front of them, you couldn’t hear what they were saying.
“They seemed to have a very cavalier attitude,” she said.
Fitzpatrick said Corbett promised the rail line would restart by the end of June — five months after initially promised — but that a firm answer would come “in the next three weeks.”
NJ Transit spokesperson Nathan Rudy said officials were considering questions posed by the Inquirer earlier Monday about the rail line and the meeting and had no response by Monday afternoon.
Freeholder Fitzpatrick and other elected officials from South Jersey say the state seems unwilling to divert any resources from North Jersey. The line was originally suspended to allow installation of the rail safety measure known as Positive Train Control, a task long completed.
Another meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Carman Tilelli Community Center in Cherry Hill, also billed as a time for the public “to discuss and address questions about the AC rail line shutdown.”
"We were told that it would be up and running the beginning of January, then pushed to end of January. Come January we were told the reason it wasn’t running was the federal rail association hadn’t inspected. That was far from the truth,” Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo said on a recent appearance on New Jersey 101.5, which prompted host Bill Spadea to write a post titled, “Does Governor Murphy hate South Jersey?”
Dan Bryan, a spokesperson for Murphy, declined to comment Monday.
Mazzeo and Assemblyman John Armato recently rode the substitute bus, and they said it took 90 minutes just to get to Camden. Other riders have complained of erratic and unreliable bus times and other inconveniences from the lack of the train line.
The Atlantic City Line attracted 2,000 daily riders, but past studies suggest that if it were scheduled more frequently and the travel time to Philadelphia cut down, the line would attract significantly more people. Fitzpatrick, the freeholder, said Corbett had previously promised her the rail line would be restored “with a cherry on top.”
Van Drew said he sent a letter signed by 11 of New Jersey’s 12 congressional representatives calling on NJ Transit to restart the line. He said he wants to ensure that the transit agency does not use the time without service to claim any diminished demand for the line.
“Studies have shown that when they have regular service, if they run hourly service, that the ridership increases greatly,” he said. He also called for some express trains to Philadelphia to cut travel time.
“We have lots of financial and economic challenges,” Van Drew said. “We’re actually going in reverse here. Right now, I just want them to get the damn thing open.“
Jon Henderson, owner of Good Time Tricycle Production, which runs the Atlantic City Beer and Music Festival, said the prolonged shutdown is hurting local entrepreneurs, Atlantic City tourism, and NJ Transit coffers all at once.
The festival, scheduled this year for March 29 and 30, attracts 27,000 people, thousands of whom in past years rode the train to the event, held at the Atlantic City Convention Center, adjacent to the train statio.
He noted that March is a big month for similarly large festivals that attract and depend on train ridership, including this weekend’s boat show.
“It’s their largest ridership of the year,” Henderson said. “People specifically take the train so they don’t drink and drive.”
The A.C. Beer and Music Festival is the second largest of its kind in the United States, Henderson said.
“There’s some economics to be discussed,” he said. “March is the biggest offseason tourism opportunity the city has.”
Claire Repisky, event coordinator for Good Time Tricycle, said she was “totally appalled” to walk into the meeting at the train station and see it so badly run by the very people South Jersey is now counting on to restart their rail line.
“Their backs were all turned to us,” she said. “Any question posed, they would answer to that person. No one could hear. We were all just in a muddle. We were wondering if someone should run home and get their own PA system. Everyone was just fighting to get their turn. They were very dismissive, just an insincere patting themselves on the back saying they were brave to be there.”
The meeting lasted about an hour and 20 minutes, she said, and while officials said they would stay to answer questions one on one, “everyone had places to go,” she said.