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St. Augustine’s Charles Solomon, 5, goes to the hoop in the first quarter against Ocean City during the CAL semifinal game at Absegami High School, Thursday, Feb 21, 2019. (VERNON OGRODNEK For The Press)

Frustration, flaring tempers at Atlantic City NJ Transit meeting

ATLANTIC CITY — NJ Transit officials couldn’t say when the Atlantic City Rail Line will reopen but promised a definite date within three weeks during a public meeting Thursday night at the rail station.

“We would like to have given you a date certain today,” said Executive Director Kevin Corbett, but he could only continue to say sometime in the second quarter, which ends with June.

“I can say June 15 — I’m 100 percent covered with June 15 or June 30,” said Corbett, adding it could be sooner. “We want to open this as soon as possible.”

When someone asked what the backup plan is if the train isn’t restored in time for August’s Atlantic City Airshow, when hundreds of thousands of people come to town, Corbett said he would lose his job if the train isn’t restored by then.

“I would fire me,” he said.

PHOTOS: NJ Transit meeting in Atlantic City

The Atlantic City Rail Line has been closed since September, replaced by bus service. However, riders say the bus increases what would normally be a one-hour commute to two hours or more.

About 200 people stood in the cavernous train station and struggled to hear their fellow commuters ask questions of state Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the chairwoman of NJ Transit’s board, and Corbett.

Some boiled over into anger, frustrated with not being able to hear or see through the thick crowd. People repeatedly complained, “We can’t hear!”

NJ Transit had brought a sound system that didn’t function, one staffer with the agency said.

Train riders told the officials to make reopening the line a priority, and fast.

Claire Repisky, the event coordinator for Linwood-based Good Time Tricycle Productions, said her organization’s Atlantic City Beer and Music Festival will be March 29 and 30. Its participants traditionally use the train to avoid drinking and driving, she said.

“This is a huge disappointment for 28,000 people who want to come and bring business to Atlantic City,” she said. She is worried the event will lose participants because the train won’t resume in time.

Some also asked that the line be expanded to better support the efforts of the city, county and state to strengthen the Atlantic County economy.

“You know you’ve done studies that show that if you were able to have trains running every hour on the hour, the number of riders would go up tremendously,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, who organized a letter from almost all of New Jersey’s congressional delegation demanding the Atlantic City line resume.

“Even once this gets open, it’s time for everyone to sit down and figure out how we are going to get more regular service ... so that we grow the area. We need this to grow the area,” said Van Drew.

Robert McNulty, 68, was used to periodically taking the Atlantic City line to Philadelphia for health care at the VA Medical Center. Now, he’s had to inconvenience friends and family for rides.

“(NJ Transit needs) to hear about the inconvenience that’s going on with the veteran community at large,” McNulty said, “because there are older veterans that live throughout South Jersey, and Philadelphia provides a variety of services that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Janet Mitrocsak, of Ocean City, said she commutes daily to Philadelphia. She has to leave an hour earlier to get to work by bus, so she now gets up at 4 a.m.

“When we took the 6:40 a.m. bus — the same time as the train — I didn’t get to work until 9:15,” she said.

Buses, unlike trains, get stuck in traffic and bad weather.

“It took three hours Wednesday to get home,” she said of the recent snowstorm.

NJ Transit has said it was necessary to stop the Atlantic City Rail Line to retrofit equipment and train tracks for Positive Train Control, a computer system designed to avoid operator-error accidents.

But the PTC work was completed quickly, and still the line didn’t reopen.

NJ Transit officials have in the past said they were waiting for approval of new schedules from the Federal Railroad Administration, but the FRA has said its approval isn’t necessary to restart the line.

Corbett said Thursday that NJ Transit will wait for FRA approval, in part to avoid liability problems should an accident or other unforeseen event occur.

Equipment and staff shortages — particularly a shortage of engineers — are also holding up the reopening, according to officials. At first they said the line would reopen in early 2019, then March, and most recently as late as June.

“My commute costs $160 extra every month now,” said Dianna Crummie, of Oaklyn, Camden County, who happily commuted by train to her job at Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa until it stopped running.

Now she takes the bus, and has had nothing but headaches. She also has had to pay a Lyft driver to take her to Collingswood, where she grabs the PATCO high-speed line to Lindenwold, she said.

But the worst part is the wear and tear on her body, she said.

“The bus yanks you around so much. You can’t relax, the seats are so close together in those buses,” said Crummie, who said she has medical conditions that are worsening, in part due to five hours commuting each day. “I walk out of my house at 4:30 a.m. and don’t walk back into the house until 7 at night. I’m not getting rest I need.”

Atlantic City turns to grass clippings to patch up failing bulkheads

ATLANTIC CITY — Concrete blocks, blacktop and bags of lawn trimmings.

That has been Atlantic City’s makeshift solution to the growing number of foot-deep sinkholes that line the decades-old, bayside bulkheads on Sunset Avenue, residents say.

Julie Lawler said she and her neighbors call the city to complain about water that creeps from the bay onto her street through the holes. A few weeks later, public works employees fill the ditches with chunks of building material and grass clippings, she said.

“The water comes up from underneath,” Lawler said. “We call the city all the time about it, and eventually they come.”

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

But it’s only a Band-Aid.

For a city saddled with debt and decreased tax revenues, there are limited funds for flood mitigation projects, according to the city’s annual evaluation report for its Hazard Mitigation Plan.

On Monday, Absecon Island saw minor coastal flooding. Water hit the wooden barrier and crept up the sinkholes onto Lawler’s street.

It’s a common scene for homeowners across Atlantic City’s bayside, where a combination of poor storm drainage systems and aging bulkheads built decades ago no longer fight nuisance flooding and the threat of sea-level rise. Over decades, water has hit the wooden barriers and slipped through its cracks, causing slow deterioration and, in some cases, sinkholes.

The last time a large portion of Atlantic City’s bayside bulkheads were replaced was 2008, when the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority spent $10.7 million to construct an 8,000-foot-long bulkhead in Venice Park. State, local and federal officials in the past largely focused on protecting oceanfront properties, though the other side of the island sees the worst inundation.

Now, for the first time since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Atlantic City has received federal funding to replace bulkheads on a few streets. It comes five years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a 15-page study on flood mitigation options for a one-mile stretch along the bay between the Atlantic City Expressway and Albany Avenue.

“The age of the bulkheads along the back bay varies significantly,” said the city’s grant writer, Jim Rutala. “They’re not watertight. So as they age, they leak and collapse.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing $217,500 this year to replace a crumbling barrier on Tallahassee Avenue in Lower Chelsea, where cones block pedestrians from a large sinkhole at the street’s end. Design proposals are being sought for bulkhead replacements on eight blocks in Chelsea while the city waits for approval of a $3.6 million FEMA grant, which takes about a year.

Another $572,500 FEMA grant was secured to construct a new barrier on a small portion of North Massachusetts Avenue leading up to Kammerman’s Marina, and the state Department of Environmental Protection is funding a $3.7 million seawall at Caspian Point on Absecon Inlet.

New bulkheads would be more resilient, built higher and with more airtight materials, like steel.

“Projects of this size take assistance,” Rutala said. “Atlantic City hasn’t had anything like this on the back bays recently.”

Other plans are pending.

The Army Corps is waiting to complete a feasibility study for a 1,900-foot steel sheet pile bulkhead from Brighton Avenue in the Chelsea neighborhood to the expressway, where sinkholes line the wooden barrier. The approximate cost would be $6.8 million, according to the Army Corps’ 2014 study, though the agency is looking at other flood mitigation strategies there as well.

“We coordinated a draft project management plan, cost-sharing agreement and letter of intent with the city and are awaiting response on that,” said Army Corps spokesman Stephen Rochette.

But movement is slow.

Getting congressional approval to fund projects takes time. The Army Corps is releasing a tentative plan that looks at reducing flooding in the state’s back bays, but construction is at least a decade away.

In the meantime, residents want the city to upgrade drainage systems to better push water back into the bay during flooding. At a civic association meeting last month at Stockton University, Mayor Frank Gilliam said “simple maintenance” is needed on storm drains and outfall pipes throughout the city.

“Sand gets clogged up in those pipes. It’s simple maintenance,” he said.

Chris Macaluso, a 32-year-old living on Arizona Avenue, agrees that aging bulkheads are only part of the problem.

Water from the bay backs up through the drains, he said, and fills the street when there’s a heavy rain or full moon.

“These storm drains,” he said, “they just start spewing.”

Charles J. Olson  

Ocean City’s Marlee Brestle, right, drives by Wildwood Catholic’s Alyia Gray-Rivera during Thursday’s semi-final game on February 21, 2019. Photo/Charles J. Olson

Atlantic City AFL franchise hopes to learn from city's past sports failures

ATLANTIC CITY — Arena Football League and Atlantic City franchise officials were optimistic Thursday the city’s new team will be able to avoid the problems that doomed other professional sports ventures.

AFL Commissioner Randall Boe, Trifecta Sports President George Manias and Trifecta Sports co-owner and AFL Executive Committee Chairman Ron Jaworski all expressed confidence that the unnamed franchise will succeed in the city during an introductory news conference at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

“We’ve been through this kind of thing before,” said Manias, whose company owns the AFL’s Albany Empire and Philadelphia Soul and will operate the Atlantic City franchise. “Albany had been through three minor-league hockey teams and two indoor football teams before we got there (last year). The Empire led the league in attendance last season and was the top seed going into the playoffs.

“One of the most important things we’re going to do is get involved with the community. Tourists will be the least part of our fan base. We’ll be heavily involved with the community, with local schools and businesses, to drum up interest in the team.”

It helps that Jaworski has some experience in dealing with the Atlantic City area.

The former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback was responsible for bringing the Maxwell Football Club annual awards gala to town 16 years ago. Its banquet will be held March 8 this year at Tropicana Atlantic City.

In May 2015, he also brought an Arena League game to Boardwalk Hall, when the Soul took on the now-defunct Las Vegas Outlaws, which drew an announced crowd of 6,514.

He also owns Blue Heron Pines Golf Club in Galloway Township.

“People asked me why Atlantic City? Why Boardwalk Hall?” Jaworski said as confetti fell. “First of all, I live about 30 miles from here, and I’ve always seen Boardwalk Hall as a perfect venue for an Arena Football League franchise.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to see this finally happen. I can’t wait to see 10,000 people screaming and hollering for their team. This is for the people of Atlantic City and the nearby communities. This is your team!”

Jaworski also spoke about the team’s desire to be heavily involved with the community, something he’s been for years.

In August 2013, Jaworski’s nonprofit, Jaws Youth Playbook, donated $30,000 to the Atlantic County Junior Football League’s Ventnor Pirates after the team’s Titus Field Complex was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

“I was bawling like a baby when I went to the opening-day ceremony,” Jaworski said. “Getting involved in projects like that is what I’m all about, and that’s what this team is going to be all about.”

The team also formally announced partnerships with TownSquare Media, which will broadcast games on 97.3 ESPN, and Ocean Casino Resort. Atlantic City players will stay there during training camp, which will be held in early April. Referees and opposing players will stay there during the season.

In January, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority unanimously approved a three-year agreement with the AFL. CRDA will make available $500,000 in capital expenditures to buy equipment to convert Boardwalk Hall with improvements that include sidewall padding, nets and goal posts.

There is still some key work to be done, namely naming the team.

Manias said the team received more than 1,750 submissions in its naming contest and the field was narrowed to five finalists: Blackjacks, Gamblers, High Rollers, Jackpot and Royals. The name has already been selected, but it will not be formally announced, along with its logo, uniforms, merchandise, etc., until early March, he said.

It is no coincidence that the team name is tied to gambling.

Team and league officials both see legalized sports betting as a huge component of the game-day experience. Boe said fans will be able to wager on every Arena League game from Atlantic City’s seven sportsbooks. The league is also working with Boardwalk Hall to develop technology that will allow fans to place in-game bets from their seats.

“The Atlantic City franchise and sports betting is a match made in heaven,” Boe said. “What we’re working to develop and roll out in time for the season is a platform so you’ll be able to sit there with your phone, and whether you’re at the game here or at the beach or wherever you are, you can watch our games, bet on our games, manage your fantasy team. It will be the greatest thing in sports and make this even more interesting and fun to be a part of.”

Brigantine to consolidate schools

BRIGANTINE — As enrollment has dropped under 500 and state aid has decreased, one school may be all that’s needed for the island’s elementary and middle school students.

The school board unanimously decided to move ahead with consolidating its schools next year after several years of discussion, Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti said.

“The thought at that time was with decreasing enrollment the district could save on transportation costs if there was one start time for the students. When we looked at the enrollment again over the past year, it made good sense in planning for the future to consolidate the two schools,” Cappelluti said.

Enrollment in the kindergarten-through-eighth grade district this year fell to 466 from 544 the previous year. In 2010-11, there were nearly 800 students. These figures do not include preschool enrollment, which expanded this year due to a state grant. High school students in Brigantine attend Atlantic City through a tuition-based sending relationship.

The loss of state aid also played a role in the district’s decision to consolidate, Cappelluti said. Under the school funding laws amended in July, aid to Brigantine decreased this year and will continue to decrease over the next six years because of the decreased enrollment.

School consolidation is not uncommon in the region, which has seen student populations shrink in the past decade. Some area districts that have eliminated buildings due to low enrollment include Margate, which closed its Union Avenue School in 2010, and Washington Township, Burlington County, which closed its Green Bank school two years ago and entered into a sending-receiving relationship with Mullica Township. Similarly, Sea Isle City closed its school more than five years ago and began sending all of its dwindling student population to neighboring Ocean City.

Avalon and Stone Harbor, which share the distinction of being two of the smallest school districts in the state, maintain separate boards and have a sending-receiving relationship in which students attend elementary at Stone Harbor and middle school in Avalon.

Brigantine’s two schools, located on Evans Boulevard, are connected but were built and operated separately. The portion of the school known as the North School for middle school students, built in 1960, is bordered by Lafayette Place. Elementary students attend the newer portion of the school on the northern portion of the property, which opened in 1996.

Under the consolidation, Cappelluti said, both schools would remain in place but operate as one, which means some rooms in the buildings would go unused, like one of the two cafeterias and some classrooms. The district’s architect is doing a study on utilization of classrooms and looking into who owns the land where the school is built, since there is no record of a deed held by the school.

“What we’re trying to do is operate more cohesively because were smaller,” the superintendent said.

She said the district is also in the process of building a new main entrance to the school, a project that started last summer.

“Our new security vestibule will have students and visitors basically coming in one entrance of the school and parent pickup, drop-off as well,” Cappelluti said.

She said the consolidation will result in one school schedule, one Title I plan, greater articulation between and among grade levels, and fewer transportation costs. District programs for the students will remain in place, she said. Some staff will be cut through attrition, but there may be some layoffs.

“With decreased enrollment affecting our state aid, eliminating staff could potentially happen. We are currently looking at the possibility of doing an enrollment projection through Stockton University’s (Southern Regional Institute & Educational Technology Training Center),” Cappelluti said.

Mayor Andy Simpson, who appoints the school board members in the Type I district, said Monday he has asked for the business administrator at the school to come up with figures on how much savings the consolidation will yield.

Simpson said he addressed the consolidation at a recent City Council meeting, to dispel rumors the city wanted to demolish the old building, sell the land and lay off teachers. Simpson said he would like to see positions cut through attrition and added he wouldn’t sell land in case it was needed for future use.

“The most important thing is the kids. We can save all the money in the world, but if we hurt the education of our kids, that doesn’t help the future of Brigantine or our kids,” Simpson said.

Cappelluti said she was not sure how the consolidation will impact next year’s budget because of the decreased state aid.