Legislation proposed March 30 by state Sen. Richard Codey, D-27th District, would created a $60 million appropriation toward a relief fund for private bus carriers.
The measure comes as DeCamp Bus Lines, the oldest bus service in New Jersey, is set to suspend service to and and from Manhattan April 7.
Montclair-based DeCamp announced it would no longer operate those routes earlier this month, citing the effects of the pandemic. The company said it would continue operating daily charter, shuttle and casino services.
“As we pass the three-year mark from the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, DeCamp Bus Lines has struggled to recapture daily commuter passengers as work-from-home, telecommuting and flex schedules severely reduced daily community to New York City,” the company said. “Despite our best efforts, monthly ridership averages 20% or less of pre-COVID levels. DeCamp has sustained commuter services up to this point, thanks to the various federal and state financial assistance programs. But, without further assistance on the horizon, the economic losses from continued operations of the commuter services are too much to bear.”
DeCamp has said its average ridership into and out of Manhattan dropped from 6,500-7,000 before the pandemic to about 1,500 recently.
According to Codey, the legislation would be similar to the Commuter & Transit Bus Private Carrier Pandemic Relief & Jobs Program from the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget. The $60 million relief fund would operated through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA).
“We have looked at this, heard from stakeholders and residents in affected communities and this is how we maintain affordable service,” said Codey. “DeCamp is quite possibly the first domino to fall and we cannot expect NJ Transit or anyone else to fill this void. While ridership is obviously down from pre-pandemic levels, we can expect some rebound, just as we expect an eventual rebound in commercial real estate.”
And, in fact, NJ Transit has announced the rollout of an emergency service plan. Beginning April 10, the agency will modify four existing bus routes to and from the Port Authority Bus Terminal during weekday peak periods. But, it is not expected to completely fill the void that the suspension of DeCamp’s service will leave.
Additionally, Boxcar, a Chatham-based transportation service that offers business class commuter buses through the North Jersey and New York City Metro area, announced it would launch the “Essex Express” to help fill some of that service void.
“We understand that the suspension of DeCamp’s services has left many of you searching for reliable transportation options. We are excited to announce that Boxcar is stepping in to fill a part of this gap and ensure your commute remains as smooth as possible,” Boxcar wrote on social media. “Announcing the ‘Essex Express.’ Starting April 10th, Boxcar will be operating 10 buses every morning between 5:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and 10 buses every evening between 3:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Initially, our service will only operate Monday-Friday.”
Boxcar began in 2016 as a phone application created by two Jersey born-and-raised entrepreneurs that focused on suburban parking solutions. Learn more about the company’s start here.
Boxcar’s route will follow Bloomfield Avenue from West Caldwell through Montclair, then take DeCamp’s previous route up Park Avenue and Valley Avenue to Route 3—making the same stops along the course that DeCamp did. For members, it would cost $8.99 per ride and $13.49 per ride for non-members. A membership is $29.99 per month.
Locally, Bloomfield is planning to expand its existing shuttle service and West Orange is promoting its municipal jitney to offer riders more options.
While Codey lauded the community efforts to help fill the gap, he said many of these options are a temporary solution at best.
“Let’s remember that private carriers like DeCamp picked up routes NJ Transit historically couldn’t service, usually because ridership was too scattered or spread out,” said Codey. “We can’t expect NJ Transit to solve this problem. Our solution will continue to provide access to New York without adding to residents’ commuting time or expense. Getting a rider to a parking lot in town centers only adds to time away from families and to their community expense.”
He added that losing DeCamp and other private carriers could really hurt North Jersey towns, from losing jobs and affecting home prices to limiting access to employment, health care, education, and entertainment in New York.
The legislation would create a Paycheck Protection Program-like loan policy that carriers can tap into to continue operations until ridership rebounds. Each carrier could be eligible to apply for funds, possibly commensurate with ridership losses. And loans could potentially be forgiven if ridership does not rebound. The emergency support would be limited to private carriers who operate their own service lines.
“This isn’t complicated,” said Codey. “Other private bus carriers are watching. And others are likely on the path toward killing this service without the state stepping in to help. This is not a bailout of some mismanaged business. This is a lifeline to companies that provide a critically important service, a service that provides jobs and access to New York. The carriers’ problem is easy to understand – as is the solution.”-