This time last year, riders of New Jersey Transit’s Atlantic City Rail Line were adjusting to a commute on a bus rather than a train, as NJ Transit stopped rail service to make federally mandated improvements.
It was a frustrating six months for local riders, but it did create an opportunity to realize the importance of Atlantic City rail service.
The suspended rail service highlighted just how isolated we are. Without it, no trains ran between Atlantic City and Philadelphia, or connected with the Delaware River Port Authority’s PATCO service. Commuting workers and students changed schedules and lost time riding buses or finding their own way.
It was a reminder of how tenuous public transportation is here in the southern part of the state.
That needs to change. Gov. Phil Murphy, who made fixing NJ Transit part of his campaign, needs to keep Atlantic City and South Jersey in mind as he rebuilds NJ Transit.
Murphy should remember his comments in his budget address, when he said: “It’s this simple — an investment in NJ Transit is a direct investment in our economy, our business environment and our commuters.”
To be fair, the governor has shown more attention to the embattled public transportation system than his predecessors, but as is often the case, his gaze is to the northern part of the state.
This is perhaps understandable, considering the Atlantic City Rail Line is the least used of all NJ Transit services and that fares from the line don’t even cover one-fourth of the cost to operate it. But that’s common for NJ Transit — taxpayers still fund more than half of the annual budget.
A different, longer viewpoint is needed.
First, since taxpayers fund the bulk of operations, they should get more consideration. Down here, that means starting with one big taxpayer, Atlantic City, and the revenue it sends to Trenton through its various casino and tourism dollars.
Without it, the state budget would be in dire shape. This is no revelation to Murphy. It’s one of the biggest reasons the state is overseeing Atlantic City’s government. It wants to see the revenue continue to stream into the state’s coffers.
For this reason, state officials should include NJ Transit as a more active stakeholder in the successful transformation of Atlantic City.
When considering the Atlantic City Rail Line, the focus should be on the long-range potential of the region. Examples abound of other cities that, through a reliable and efficient rail line, have become thriving bedroom communities to other metro areas. That could be Atlantic City’s future as a seaside town — affordable and with great amenities such as the beach, boardwalk and restaurants — for commuters with jobs in Philadelphia, Camden and New York.
That could happen, over time, if those prospective new home buyers knew they could rely on a regular, hour-long trip from the resort to Philadelphia.
In his budget remarks, Murphy predicted NJ Transit would become one of the great “turnaround” stories.
He should remember that he has said the same about Atlantic City.Maybe he should look at both challenges as related ones.