Timothy Smalls, 62, waited for the PATCO train to take him from the Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden to Philadelphia this week. It was his second day as a returning WRTC commuter, having frequented the center four years ago on his daily commute to Trenton.
“It looks worse than it did when I first started coming here,” Smalls said of his experience at Walter Rand, which he has used for three years.
Talk to one of the 9,000 people who use the center daily and many riders will say the same thing: It needs a facelift. Badly.
Help is on the way.
The Camden County Board of Freeholders voted on June 25 to accept a $7 million grant from NJ Transit, marking the first investment that will be used for construction at the center.
The money will finance a pedestrian bridge that will span six-lane Martin Luther King Boulevard adjacent to the center. It will connect the transit building, which houses PATCO and commuter parking, to the opposite side of the street, where Cooper University Hospital and other businesses are on Broadway.
There are four to six Camden County Metro Department police officers assigned each day near the WRTC to assist pedestrians as they cross MLK Boulevard and the surrounding areas, said Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli Jr. The bridge, and the overall redevelopment project, are needed, he added.
“Check out [WRTC], and you’ll see why,” he said. “It’s outdated … it’s in need of an infusion of new technology, a new look, and something that is much more user friendly.”
Plans for the redevelopment of the WRTC have been underway for years. Money to assist in these efforts — including a $2 million federal grant in 2018 and funds from the county — have paid for architects and engineers.
The NJ Transit grant is the first investment that will be used for construction, set to begin in 2021, said Camden County spokesperson Dan Keashen. The money will cover the costs of the bridge, and any remaining dollars will finance further planning costs.
The grant is a fraction of the projected $150 million cost of the renovations. Cappelli said financing the project will likely rely on investment from public and private groups, adding that NJ Transit, PATCO, and Camden County are “on board with exploring this redevelopment."
Preliminary designs from a 2017 economic impact study propose a transit station with a weather-protected 25-berth bus terminal, an additional 280 parking spaces above the bus concourse, street-level retail, and a building with six to 12 stories of office, apartment, or hotel space.
The center currently houses 14 bus berths and 450 parking spaces, which studies show have a midday occupancy of 67 percent.
Traffic at the center — which handles 10,000 “boardings and alightings” each workday through service with PATCO, 26 NJ Transit bus routes, the RiverLINE light rail, and other transit options — has increased as downtown Camden develops, Cappelli said.
The WRTC serves commuters en route to Cooper Hospital, recently constructed Rowan University Medical School, and KIPP Norcross School.
County officials also hope investment in the WRTC will spur further development near MLK and Broadway.
The transit center has also long been a hub for the homeless, many of whom sleep on the sidewalks lining Broadway. For county officials and many riders, the need to end loitering is another reason to upgrade.
Tina Santiago, 32, waited for a PATCO train with her 10 year-old daughter after a recent appointment at Cooper. She said her child is “exposed to things” — including drugs and prostitution — when they walk outside WRTC. Santiago, a Camden native who uses the center about twice a month, says she does not feel safe near the transit hub.
“Ferry Station doesn’t feel or look like it does here,” she said, referring to her regular PATCO transit stop in Camden.
Shau Ramsey, 32, stood across from the station on Broadway with dozens of other people waiting for rides or just hanging out around at WRTC, like he often does. He relies on the station for transportation, especially since his car was towed. He said he did not have strong opinions about the center’s upgrades.