With DeCamp Bus Lines poised to soon terminate its routes connecting Montclair to New York, township government has shifted into overdrive, with officials working to keep the service going or find an alternative.
Two days after DeCamp alerted passengers that a severe drop in business had left them no choice but to discontinue the commuter service on April 7, everything seemed to be on the table. Conversations between local, state and federal officials focused at least in part on finding money to inject into DeCamp’s operations, and some, like Montclair Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams brainstormed the idea of a jitney to at least fill in some of the gaps.
“We’re all spitballing,” Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said.
On Tuesday, March 21, Acting Township Manager Brian Scantlebury and Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings met with Joe Colangelo, chief executive officer of Boxcar, a transportation service that provides round-trip routes to Manhattan in 12 towns in Union, Morris and Bergen counties.
Cummings said they discussed a “myriad of options and ideas.”
“At this point we are exploring options,” Cummings said in a text message. “Mr. Scantlebury is leading the way with an expedient approach that has the potential to start soon. But there are conversations to be had on the local and state level, as well as officials from other municipalities impacted. The township is going to explore all options.”
The efforts extended to Congress. U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who lives in Montclair, said she had sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, chair of the subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, seeking funding.
“In my New Jersey district, a commuter line – which has operated for 153 years years – announced this week that it would cut its commuter bus service due to decreased ridership,” Sherrill said in the letter. “Not only has this left riders in search of options to make their way from North Jersey to Manhattan, it has imperiled the good union jobs that the commuter service supports. As you know, reliable access to transit is crucial for economic dynamism and competitiveness, and I am concerned that major gaps in New Jersey’s transportation network will emerge in the absence of immediate action.”
Yacobellis said he conferred with West Orange Mayor Susan McCartney and Verona Deputy Mayor Christine McGrath. Compared to Montclair, their towns have far fewer transportation options and have been heavily dependent on DeCamp. In all, DeCamp serves 17 communities.
NJ Transit has said it was assessing alternatives, including tapping into existing bus, rail and light rail services. The hope, Yacobellis said, was for at least some temporary financial support from state or federal resources to continue DeCamp’s routes until NJ Transit develops a plan.
“But it’s not clear what’s going to actually happen at this point,” Yacobellis said.
Being forced to close the bus routes was a stinging reminder of the enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jonathan DeCamp, the company’s vice president and chief operating officer, and a sixth-generation owner. Before the coronavirus, he said, the company deployed 50 buses, all leased from NJ Transit. It now operates 19.
He said that before making the decision to close down the lines, he had contemplated raising the fares, which he said averaged $7.20, depending on the route.
“We looked at it, but nobody would ride the bus for the price it would take to cover my current expenditures,” DeCamp said. “Not when you have transit trains right in our backyard. I can’t take a fare from $7 to $13 or $14 overnight.”
Colangelo, the head of Boxcar, said that his business has been based on a different model. His buses pick up passengers at train stations for the ride to Manhattan. But, he said, he was in learning mode about Montclair’s particular needs, and ways he could adapt.
During the Tuesday night rush hour, he stationed himself at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan to talk to Montclair residents as they were about to board the buses for home.
He said he was “rooting” for DeCamp and said that perhaps there were ways for him to supplement the service with limited routes.
“My preference would be that some level of service, if not the full service would be able to continue,” Colangelo said. “And if that’s the case, maybe there’s an opportunity for us to augment that, and if there’s not, we can probably provide a way for people in the area to commute in a way that doesn’t look completely different from what they were doing.”