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Final day of the Shoprite LPGA Classic, at Seaview, in Galloway, Sunday June 9, 2019. (VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Press)

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SJTA revenue down 66% due to COVID-19; toll hike plan dominates public comment

Toll revenue on the Atlantic City Expressway was down more than 66% in April to just $1.1 million due to travel restrictions imposed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, South Jersey Transportation Authority Executive Director Stephen Dougherty reported at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Year-to-date toll revenue is $17.4 million, down 23.4%, Dougherty said.

The board also approved a resolution to accept a $7.9 million federal CARES Act grant designed to help the authority weather the downturn.

There was nothing on the agenda related to the SJTA’s proposed $500 million capital improvement plan or proposed 37% toll increases, the hearings for which were held online last month. But the subject dominated the public comment period.

What the Atlantic City Expressway toll hikes would fund

When explaining their reasons for proposing a 37% toll increase on the Atlantic City Expressway, officials have stressed the need for nearly $500 million in construction spending to widen and repave the highway and improve its connection to Atlantic City International Airport.

The Egg Harbor City toll on the expressway would increase from $3 to $4.25 under the plan, and current $0.75 tolls would increase to $1.25.

The benefits of the $210 million cost of widening the expressway to three lanes in both directions from Exit 31 to the western end at Route 42, and of building a direct connection to Atlantic City International Airport, have not been shown, said John Richman of the environmental group Blue Wave New Jersey.

“The authority never provided that kind of analysis,” Richman said. “It flies in the face of the (state) Energy Master Plan” and its emphasis on reducing carbon pollution and vehicle miles traveled.

Others also cited Gov. Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 100, which would, among other things, “integrate climate change considerations, such as sea level rise, into its regulatory and permitting programs.”

“It needs to be put on hold,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel. “Widening and cutting through the Pinelands Reserve and the Winslow Wildlife Management Area is the wrong project, wrong place. You cannot build your way out of traffic. The more roads you build, the more traffic and sprawl you get.”

The plan includes $150 million for widening, $60 million to connect Exit 9 with the airport via four new bridges, $200 million for a light rail project from Glassboro to Camden and no specified funds to improve NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Rail Line.

All of the callers — a total of about 10, many of them associated with environmental organizations — asked the SJTA to spend more money on public transit and less on encouraging use of automobiles.

Even SJTA commissioners can't get info on all toll hike projects

No one seems to know how much of the revenue from a proposed 36% toll hike on the Atlantic City Expressway would be used for improvements on the Atlantic City Rail Line, although officials have said up to $200 million would go to develop a Glassboro-to-Camden light rail line.

Anne Kelly, of Mount Laurel, Burlington County, said she lived through highway expansion in California and saw it does not improve traffic conditions.

“I can attest that expanding highways did little to diminish the congestion in the Los Angeles basin,” Kelly said. “In fact, in less than a decade, the three-lane highway that expanded to four was not only more congested, but the pollution and the health of the residents were and are considerably diminished.”

David Pringle of Clean Water Action and Empower NJ was among those who objected to plans to spend $60 million on four new bridges to connect the expressway and the airport.

The SJTA has not shown the need to improve the connection from the expressway to the airport, several callers said, since it is already a short and simple connection and the airport has remained underutilized.

“Most people are still trying to figure out if it’s safe to leave home or go to the beach,” said Doug O’Malley of Environment New Jersey. “They are not focusing on the capital plan and potential toll hike. I implore the board not to move forward for that reason alone.”

But he said he also has serious concerns about how the potential toll increases would be used to encourage travel by vehicle rather than public transit.

“The largest source of carbon is cars and trucks on the road,” O’Malley said. “We need to flatten the curve on air pollution,” since poor air quality leads to asthma and other lung conditions that put people at greater risk of COVID-19.

Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, chairwoman of the SJTA board and New Jersey’s transportation commissioner, has said the capital plan would put people back to work.

SJTA pressed for more info on toll hikes

The South Jersey Transportation Authority has not provided enough information to the public about how much money it expects to raise from a proposed 38% toll increase on the Atlantic City Expressway, and how much it plans to spend on improvements to the Atlantic City Rail Line, according to state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic.

Murphy and state Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, have also stressed the need for road improvements as job creators.

Similar toll increases are under consideration by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority on the Garden State Parkway and the turnpike.

But U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd; state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic; and Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, D-Atlantic, have questioned the timing of the increases, as mass layoffs have left so many New Jerseyans without income.

Airport passenger numbers fell 99% compared to last April, Dougherty said, and airport parking revenue was down 97.4% to just $20,700.

About 1,500 passengers used the facility in April, he said, and year-to-date passenger traffic there is down 37% compared to the same period in 2019.

Unions vs. toll payers at online hearing on expressway toll hikes

In the first of three electronic public hearings on toll increases for the Atlantic City Expressway on Wednesday, union officials expressed support for the increases, while road users opposed both the toll increases and holding the hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is the second month of dramatic decreases.

Last month, Dougherty reported expressway toll revenue in March was $4.1 million, down 33% from March 2019. At that time, the year-to-date total down 7.3% to $15.3 million.

Spirit Airlines is flying just three times a week to Orlando, Florida, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Dougherty said.

The board’s next meeting will be at 9 a.m. June 17.

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With summer on the way, Cape weighs new options for restaurants

With the expectation that COVID-19 will be with us through the summer, shore towns are looking at new ways for restaurants to operate in the peak tourist season.

Among the options: expanding outdoor service, even if it means taking over parking lots and sidewalks.

Several municipal governing bodies have discussed the idea recently, including Cape May, North Wildwood and Ocean City.

Numerous details still need to be worked out, and the state rules still limit restaurants to takeout and delivery. Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey, who has headed up the county’s reopening plans, has said limiting the capacity of businesses will be an important part of allowing businesses to operate while the coronavirus remains in circulation.

Officials in shore towns expect those capacity limits to continue well into the summer.

Additional table space outside may help, they suggest.

North Wildwood seems to have led the way, with an April 21 resolution relaxing the procedures for restaurants to receive a site plan review to place tables outside. According to the minutes of that meeting posted to the city’s website, Mayor Patrick Rosenello told council members that while sit-down service remains prohibited under Gov. Phil Murphy’s emergency orders, the city wants to be ready when that changes.

“When that restriction is rescinded, it is quite possible that social distancing regulations/standards will remain in effect,” the minutes state. Wildwood and Wildwood Crest approved similar resolutions.

The resolution passed unanimously. North Wildwood officials say they hope the state Division of Alcohol Beverage Control will also ease rules, allowing licensed restaurants to serve alcohol outside this summer.

On Tuesday, Cape May City Council approved a resolution allowing amended seating plans for restaurants to be approved by city Manager Jerry Inderwies Jr., with input from the police chief and the city’s zoning officer.

According to city Attorney Frank Corrado, the vote will allow restaurants to use their own property and — with council permission — the public right of way for tables and food service.

The resolution will allow restaurant owners to get ready for when the state eases rules, said Mayor Clarence “Chuck” Lear, with the expectation that additional space will be required between tables.

Councilman Zach Mullock suggested restaurant owners submit plans to Inderwies for approval.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see this become a free-for-all,” Mullock said.

As drafted, the resolution would require restaurants to get council approval to place tables on sidewalks.

Corrado said he is comfortable with the legality of the resolution, which he acknowledged would supersede the normal process of zoning approval during the emergency.

But he cautioned against an additional resolution under consideration that would have temporarily suspended the city’s rules against open containers of alcohol in public streets and sidewalks, which was aimed at allowing bars and taverns to serve outside.

“I don’t want you to adopt a resolution that in essence turns the city of Cape May into an open tailgate party,” Corrado said.

Mullock described the idea as an invitation to disaster, but Lear said owners have paid a great deal for licenses and the proposal would allow businesses to sell a drink to go. The change was not approved.

Another resolution under consideration, but not voted on Tuesday, would reduce speed limits on streets around the Washington Street Mall and along Beach Avenue, with the expectation that people would be more likely to step off sidewalks and enter streets to keep distance.

“This is how we perceive operating this summer, more people avoiding other people,” Inderwies said. He wants drivers to be warned that they should be ready to slow down.

Cape May initially weighed going further than have other towns. Lear raised the idea of closing some streets to vehicles to give more room for restaurant tables and other businesses.

“Under the circumstances, I think it’s something that we need to talk about and come to a decision shortly,” he said May 5. The city instead voted to reduce speed limits.

In Ocean City, Councilman Keith Hartzell raised the idea at a recent meeting, suggesting the city consider allowing tables in parking areas and on sidewalks.

The dry town would not need to address alcohol service. Council members did not commit to any action.

Upper Township has far fewer restaurants, but Township Committee members still mulled the possibilities at a recent meeting after hearing a report from Blanche Adams of the Upper Township Business Association. Recommendations included using parking areas for restaurant seating.

“Maybe we could have tents outside to help with seating,” Adams said.

“Just keep us in the loop, and if there’s anything we can help facilitate, we’re certainly open to any suggestions,” replied Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo.

PHOTOS Crowds hit Ocean City Boardwalk, beach in trial run for Memorial Day weekend

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Report: Schools must consider mental health, funding, staffing to reopen

Throughout New Jersey, educators, parents and school boards are wondering just what school will look like in September as the state remains under a public health emergency due to COVID-19.

“Our concern is that we may not be physically in school in September, so we have to prepare for both remote instruction and any retrofits and changes we have to make if we are in school in September,” Superintendent Barry Caldwell told the Atlantic City Board of Education Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, the New Jersey School Boards Association released a report detailing some of the biggest issues that need to be addressed if and when students return to the classroom in the fall, which they say includes staffing, mental health of students and money.

“The report draws on the viewpoints of New Jersey’s local school officials, research by experts in education, medicine and public health, and the experience of other nations in reopening schools,” said Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “It is designed to help school districts further define challenges in these areas and develop strategies to meet them.”

Not long after the state’s first cases of the virus began to emerge in March, schools began developing and implementing remote learning plans to continue with the school year from afar, which they have been doing since mid-March.

In early May, Gov. Phil Murphy announced remote learning would continue until the end of the academic year in June, a move applauded by the state’s education officials, including the NJSBA. Since then, the state Department of Education has begun working on a plan for what education will look like in September. Feinsod said the NJSBA report will help inform that process.

According to the report, while addressing and assessing any learning gaps resulting from home instruction will be important, addressing students’ mental health is paramount.

NJ awarded $310 million in CARES Act funds for K-12 education

From enhancing distance learning to cleaning school buildings, local school districts are beginning to consider how to spend their share of the $310 million allocated this week in federal stimulus money for New Jersey education in response to COVID-19.

The report also calls on the state to tell school districts as soon as possible just how much state aid they would be receiving ahead of the August deadline the state set.

School boards have been feeling the tension of financial uncertainty, especially in their budgeting processes this spring, trying to decide how to spend money next year relying on what will most certainly be outdated state aid figures provided pre-pandemic to districts.

To help, New Jersey was awarded $310 million in emergency funding through the federal CARES Act to deal with the pandemic’s effect on education, 90% of which will go directly to schools for costs associated with remote learning, technology upgrades, purchasing of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, and related items.

In its report, the NJSBA also warns that before any plans are developed to bring students back into the classroom, districts must consider staffing, including hiring additional bus drivers, school nurses and teachers (a third of teachers in the nation are over 50, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and considered at higher risk).

The report cites California and Maryland, which have both eased restrictions on new teacher hiring requirements to make sure classrooms are staffed in the fall.

Other recommendations include engaging in early and sustained communication with parents, students and staff; revised emergency plans if online instruction must resume; a variety of strategic options for schools in reopening; policy on the use of PPE; modification of the state’s school district evaluation system so districts are not penalized for actions necessary to address the pandemic; administration of tests to identify the need for remediation, and adequate funding to provide such programs.

The NJSBA’s report comes a few days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its reopening guidelines for schools, which include suggestions such as staggering arrival times, spacing desks 6 feet apart and facing in the same direction, reducing class size and closing communal spaces like lunchrooms and playgrounds.

So what might school look like? Many of the school board members and administrators who responded to the NJSBA survey were uncertain about what the future holds and what would be required of their district.

“It depends upon the criteria set out by Gov. Murphy. I feel my district is prepared and able to physically open the building and address sanitation needs, but I am unsure about virus testing measures and the ability to implement perhaps a split day to reduce the number of students in the building at one time,” reads a response from an unnamed Atlantic County school official, which the NJSBA said was similar to that of many other respondents.

A survey of 1,000 school board members and administrators revealed that 29% of districts are considering alternate in-person and remote instructional periods, while 24% are considering split sessions. Another 21% are considering the use of non-classroom areas for instruction to accommodate social distancing, and 21% are looking at a flipped classroom model where lectures occur online at home and learning activities happen in person. Finally, just 5% are considering a six-day school week.

Read the full report here: Searching for a ‘New Normal’ in New Jersey’s Public Schools: How the Coronavirus Is Changing Education in the Garden State.

VA sends nurses to 2 Atlantic County nursing homes

Ten nurses from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs arrived this week at Meadowview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Northfield, and a similar number at Preferred Care in Absecon, the VA said Wednesday.

The two were among five New Jersey nursing homes chosen for the extra help, based on need and, in Meadowview’s case, its service to veterans.

“In discussions with FEMA, we talked about homes we were aware of that were impacted,” said Vince Kane, the VA’s Wilmington medical center director. “Meadowview ... (does) a great job of caring for veterans and prioritizing veterans. It made good sense.”

The two facilities have reported an increase in COVID-19 cases recently. Meadowview has 48 cases among its residents and 25 among its staff, with 10 resident deaths, state Health Department data show. Preferred Care has 84 cases among residents, 43 among staff members and 17 resident deaths.

“In times of crisis, the VA takes on the obligation of helping the country by helping communities,” Kane said.

“It’s been priceless for us,” said Michelle Savage, Meadowview administrator.

She said regular staff members stay home not just if they test positive but also if they have symptoms that may be COVID-19, such as a cough or sore throat.

“Folks are flying in from all over the country to help out,” said Cynthia Murray, of Galloway Township, nurse manager of clinical operations at the Atlantic County Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Northfield, which falls under the Wilmington VA. The nurses are from Baltimore and Salisbury, Maryland; Salem, Massachusetts; Reno, Nevada; and Fayetteville, North Carolina, the VA said.

Murray is the VA point person for both Meadowview and Preferred Care.

“We are so privileged to be able to come in and give back a little bit to an institution (Meadowview) that does so much for veterans of the area. It’s a remarkable institution,” Murray said.

For several years, Meadowview has qualified to provide nursing home care to local veterans near their homes and families, rather than requiring them to travel outside the area for a veterans home.

Preferred Care in Absecon was chosen because a high number of its residents and staff have been affected by COVID-19, Kane said.

Murray also worked in critical care at the East Orange Veterans Hospital in North Jersey during the COVID-19 crisis, she said.

“The community hospitals and nursing homes were funneling patients to the VA,” Murray said “So we were caring for veterans as well as civilians in the area.”

This is the first time the VA has provided nurses to Atlantic County nursing homes, Murray said.

New Jersey long-term care investigation seeks public input

The state attorney general wants people whose loved ones are in New Jersey long-term care facilities to tell him about problems they have seen with care, as he and his staff investigate the high death rates at many facilities from COVID-19, he said Tuesday during Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily briefing.

“Normally it’s for earthquakes and hurricanes. It’s meant to supplement the civilian population health systems,” Murray said. “This is an entirely different type of national crisis.”

The only Atlantic County facility that has reported a staff death is the Egg Harbor Center in Egg Harbor Township, according to the state.

Hammonton Center for Health and Rehabilitation has by far the largest numbers of positive residents and staff, and is getting help from National Guard troops, a state Health Department spokesperson said recently.

Hammonton Center has 173 cases of COVID-19 among residents, 33 among staff and 35 resident deaths, the state reported Wednesday on its COVID-19 dashboard.

The other centers in New Jersey getting nursing help from the VA are Elmwood Hills Healthcare Center in Blackwood, Camden County, Premiere Cadbury of Cherry Hill and Water’s Edge Healthcare & Rehabilitation in Trenton.