ATLANTIC CITY — Legislators of both parties expressed frustration and disappointment with the poor organization of NJ Transit’s public meeting Thursday night, and the lack of clear information on why the Atlantic City Rail Line has not reopened.
The meeting, to let the public and transit officials communicate directly with each other about the monthslong closing of the line, was held in the cavernous train station next to the Convention Center.
There was no seating for the approximately 200 people who showed up, and no sound system so people could hear what was said.
People mainly wanted to know when the line, closed since September, will reopen.
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But Executive Director Kevin Corbett could only promise to have a date for the reopening within three weeks.
“It was poorly planned,” said Atlantic County Freeholder Frank Formica, a Republican who is running for Assembly. “It was unfair to all those people to not have seating. And people ended up paying $15 to park. I paid.”
Free parking was available, but there was no sign to tell people that — only signs saying it cost $15. If people could find an attendant to ask, they were directed to a free area under the Convention Center.
“The positive from the meeting was, they did say in three weeks they will come up with a date (to reopen the line),” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, a Democrat. “But I was disappointed with the way it was run.”
Mazzeo said seats and a public address system would have helped people see and hear what was going on, instead of having a sea of bodies standing in front of them.
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People’s questions about why the line had to be shut down were not answered, he said.
“Perhaps we’ll never know,” said Mazzeo.
NJ Transit said it was closing the line to install Positive Train Control safety equipment required by the federal government, but then didn’t reopen it after the installation was complete.
Now it says a shortage of engineers, equipment and concerns about getting the Federal Railroad Administration’s approval for a new schedule are holding up the reopening.
Formica asked why NJ Transit could not bring two or three engines and engineers from one of the state’s 11 other major train lines — all serving Ocean County and north. But he didn’t get an answer to his question.
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“Whose decision was it to take all our equipment?” said Formica. “It’s unconscionable to me that ... they couldn’t find three engines. Let somebody else get mad at (NJ Transit).”
Corbett and state Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the chairwoman of NJ Transit’s board, took questions and complaints from commuters whose travel times have doubled now that they have to use a NJ Transit bus, from veterans who need the train to access medical care in Philadelphia, and from Atlantic City business owners worried about a loss of visitors who would come by train.
Republican Atlantic County Freeholders Richard Dase and Amy Gatto said in a statement Friday the meeting provided more questions than answers.
“In September we were told the PTC was being installed and service would resume in January. Last night we were told that they are short cars and engineers,” the two said. “Most of us already suspected that.”
Dase and Gatto said Atlantic County needs its rail service restored, along with “a bolstered schedule that, according to NJ Transit’s own study, will serve to increase ridership, and a plan to connect with the airport.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, agreed.
“It was a good-sized crowd. That made it really clear how serious this is for the whole region,” Van Drew said. “I’m confident they are going to resume service. ... Now that they let us down so much, we are going to relentlessly pursue getting more service.”
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State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he calls NJ Transit regularly and will keep up the pressure on the agency.
“I feel like everyone else — frustrated and disheartened over the lack of progress and continued broken promises on when the rail line will reopen,” Brown said.
“They should have never closed the rail line in the first place,” he said.
Mazzeo said NJ Transit officials heard loud and clear how people have been harmed by the closure.
“After last night and the frustration from the group, I think it’s in (NJ Transit’s) best interest to get it running sooner rather than later,” said Mazzeo.