ATLANTIC CITY — Kathleen Jurimas takes the 5:47 a.m. train from Atlantic City to Philadelphia for work every morning. And since the Atlantic City Rail Line returned in May, she’s had to take the bus home.

The new train schedule would require her to wait too long, she said. It’s been a headache.

“The train is a lot faster because of the traffic, especially in the summertime,” said Jurimas, 56, of Margate. “The bus on Friday night took me ... I got on at 10 of 4 (p.m.), and I didn’t get home till 6:30 from Philadelphia.”

Years-long complaints about the Atlantic City Rail Line — that it’s underfunded and underappreciated — may have reached a crescendo during the September-May shutdown. Its reopening did little to quiet commuters’ grumblings, however, and calls for expanded service have grown louder since.

But after a meeting last week brokered by state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, among NJ Transit’s executive director, other agency brass and prominent South Jersey stakeholders, some officials are starting to feel heard.

It’s about the city being given the chance to take full advantage of its location, proponents say. Some current commuters illustrate the possibility of Atlantic City as a bedroom community.

Atlantic City native Maria Huynh’s first day of work in Philadelphia was also the first day the line was back up and running. She rode the line to Philadelphia — as she has every weekday since — and has no plans of moving closer to her office.

“My family lives there, so it’s just nice,” said Huynh, 26, “and on the weekends, I can still go to the beach and stuff and it sort of feels like I live where people vacation, or (have a) summer home.”

In September, Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy and co-author of the state’s transition report on Atlantic City, voiced support for the rail line’s potential.

“The city and region could prosper if the train ride between Atlantic City and Philadelphia took less time and local commuters had a richer set of options,” Johnson wrote in a quarterly report. “Addressing the transit issue would make the city more attractive as a home for commuters and a much more likely option for customers seeking entertainment.”

The findings of a 2013 study commissioned by NJ Transit suggested the line’s ridership could double if run times between the cities were increased from 12 a day to 20. It languished, the agency unwilling to foot the additional costs.

In the chicken-or-the-egg debate over whether ridership numbers are paltry because the schedule is weak, or the other way around, NJ Transit has made its stance clear: The line to Philadelphia is a consistent underperformer. Between 2011 and 2017, ridership fell almost 28%.

But since the reopening, the number of commuters taking the line to Philadelphia from the resort is up. Numbers for one week in June showed a 15% increase in riders between the cities over a comparable week from last year.

Local officials and stakeholders, including Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr., Casino Reinvestment Development Authority Executive Director Matt Doherty and Brown, met with Executive Director Kevin Corbett and other NJ Transit officials last week in Atlantic City to discuss the possibility of expanding service on the line. Multiple attendees of the meeting said NJ Transit was receptive to the idea, more so than in the past.

“It certainly seemed different to me. The attitude was very positive, very receptive, very candid,” said Amy Gatto, chairwoman of the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

By mid-July, stakeholders will turn in goals to be accomplished within a year, in one to three years and in three to five years, Brown said.

Brown said one short-term goal is getting extra cars for special events in the resort. Getting more trains would require “four years’ lead time,” he said.

“Finally, we’re having a dialogue and people are talking with one another,” Brown said.

The agency is $135 million in debt, said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland. Sweeney has proposed $75 million in extra funding for NJ Transit for the next fiscal year, compared with a $25 million increase floated by Gov. Phil Murphy. The state budget for 2020 is expected to be signed into law this weekend.

Sweeney said in an editorial board meeting with The Press of Atlantic City that trains won’t give the state a direct return on investment. The benefits of a robust train line come indirectly.

“The only way you’re going to get reliable transportation is to fund it properly,” Sweeney said. “You don’t make money on mass transportation. Just like in government you don’t make money on parks. But there are certain roles that the government has, and that train really could be one hell of a benefit to this region.”

The idea of making the area around the Atlantic City Rail Terminal a “Transit Village” has been floated over the past few years. The designation, of which there are 33 in the state, would make Atlantic City eligible for funds to develop near the station and make it an attractive living option for commuters.

It may take a strong advertising push on the opposite end of the line. A few years ago, Jersey City launched a marketing campaign targeting the outer boroughs of New York City to “educate people on all the great things that are happening in Jersey City.”

“That’s helped; there’s no question,” said Mayor Steven Fulop. “We’ve seen astronomical growth. And in the next census, we’ll be bigger than Newark. We’ll be the largest city in the state.”

Before the same can happen in Atlantic City, commuters need to know there’s a reliable way to get to work.

“A lot of people I took the train with now are driving or using other options,” Jurimas said, “because it’s not working.”

People are talking about how to reinvent Atlantic City. Join the conversation here.

Contact: 609-272-7260 Twitter @ACPressColtShaw

Staff Writer

I cover breaking news on the digital desk. I graduated from Temple University in Dec. 2017 and joined the Press in the fall of 2018. Previously, I freelanced, covering Pennsylvania state politics and criminal justice reform.

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