Montclair commuters will soon lose DeCamp Bus Lines option
Montclair commuters stepped onto the No. 66 bus on Tuesday morning, braced for a new reality – that their regular commute would soon be upended and a ritual that had long been a part of their lives would disappear.
A bus filled to the brim pulled away from Walnut and Park streets at 7:45 a.m on Tuesday, March 21, with people up and down the rows of navy blue cushion seats still absorbing the news from a day earlier – DeCamp Bus Lines, which began as a stagecoach line in 1870, will be ending its commuter services to New York as of Friday, April 7.
When five more people boarded at Valley and Nassau roads, a man with a leather work bag slung over his shoulder said with gallows humor, "We're going out with a bang." There was little other chatter over the next hour as the bus with the blue and gold script logo, rolled through town, farther along to Route 3, then into the Lincoln Tunnel before reaching the Port Authority.
"They know me by the first name, they know my stop," said Andrea Friedman, an optometrist who got on for the return trip to work side by side with her father, a weekly occurrence. "And I see the same faces every Tuesday."
The seven affected commuter bus lines, which carry Montclair area residents to and from Manhattan daily, are the Nos. 33, 66/66R, 44, 99, 88, 32 and 100. DeCamp will continue to operate daily charter, shuttle and casino services, the company said.
The company's announcement, issued on Twitter, was both mournful and filled with appreciation, while acknowledging a harsh truth, that the COVID-19 epidemic and its aftermath had forced DeCamp to make these cuts. The company's website describes it as the oldest privately owned bus company in the country.
The end to a vital transportation option hit Montclair suddenly, but it was three years in the making, said Jonathan DeCamp, vice president and chief operating officer, and a sixth-generation owner.
In late March 2020, DeCamp Bus Lines suspended all its services when the COVID-19 pandemic required quarantines and travel restrictions. As people adapted to the “new normal” of the coronavirus, DeCamp Bus Lines resumed services, only to shut down again. Ultimately, the impact of more people working from home and with flex schedules, apparently doomed the service. Weekday ridership has plummeted from between 6,500 and 6,800 before the pandemic to the roughly 1,300 the company sees now, DeCamp said.
“It's not economically feasible,” DeCamp said. “The routes are losing money on a daily basis.”
He said that federal and state aid had helped keep the routes active, but that the company does not foresee further help.
“Without financial assistance, we can’t absorb those losses,” DeCamp said, adding that "right now, I'm staring at the fact that it's going to be the end of the line unless there’s any financial assistance."
Amid the pandemic, DeCamp said, private motorcoach carriers and private commuter coaches relied on paycheck-to-paycheck protection programs and some help from the state to keep employees working.
In a statement, New Jersey Transit said it had begun analyzing the impact of DeCamp's decision.
"Part of that assessment," the statement says, "is identifying the alternatives already available on existing NJ Transit bus, rail and light rail service. We'll communicate available alternatives for affected DeCamp customers in advance of April 7th."
The abrupt announcement sent elected officials scrambling to figure out how to sustain the bus lines, which also serve 16 other communities, including Bloomfield, Verona, West Caldwell and West Orange. The officials were quickly trying to arrive at alternatives for a vital conduit for Montclair residents, including approaching New Jersey Transit to pick up some of the service with its bus fleet.
"We have been in touch with NJ Transit, who assured us that they are working on the problem and an answer to how the gap in service will be addressed," U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill said. "As we learn more, we will be sure to share it on our social media channels."
Montclair Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said that he was shocked to hear the news on Monday morning.
"While this issue has an acute and harmful impact on Montclair, it is also bigger than Montclair," Yacobellis said in an email to constituents. "Therefore, I'm in the process of reaching out to our state and federal officials to ask for a whole of government approach."
He said he had contacted U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez; U.S. Reps. Mikie Sherrill and Donald Payne Jr.; Gov. Phil Murphy; State Sens. Nia Gill and Richard Codey, State Assembly members Britnee Timberlake, Thomas Giblin and John McKeon.
Gill said in a statement: "As a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, I have been in contact with NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett and his staff to determine how the state can assist in mitigating the impact of DeCamp's change in service on commuters."
She added that she would continue to monitor the situation.
Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo called on New Jersey Transit to contract with DeCamp to keep drivers and staff employed and routes serviced, particularly the No. 33 and No. 66 buses.
"COVID is not completely gone and there is a state budget surplus," Russo said in a text. "Pure capitalism without regulation and a sense of community need and service does not work."
Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager called the development a "huge loss" for Montclair.
"I was shocked today to hear of their closing, and so soon," she said. "I wish there was a longer notice to give the council a bit more time to work with the surrounding towns that DeCamp serves to do whatever we can to possibly save DeCamp. But, I for one will be contacting all our local and state officials to urge them to assist in helping to keep DeCamp running."
Both Russo and Schlager offered reflections infused with nostalgia.
Russo said that he last took a ride on DeCamp years ago for a steak dinner at The Palm and to see "Les Miserables."
Memories flooded back for Schlager, of commuting on the DeCamp buses when she and her husband first moved to Montclair more than 30 years ago, and of a bus driver, Sal Siano, whom she described as "beloved and dedicated." Recalling trips to see shows when her daughter was 4, she said that her daughter, now grown and living in New York, occasionally rides on DeCamp for visits.
"It’s almost like coming full circle," Schlager said. "They have always been here for so many of us. It’s an end of a steep tradition for many of us."
Many commuters received news of the ending of service when they arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York on Monday morning and drivers made the announcement. The drivers asked the passengers to reach out to their state and federal government representatives to see if any aid for the company can be found. The company said the union representing the drivers had expressed a desire for their members to relay the word directly to passengers.
Mark Jones, president of Local 1614 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, implored the customers "to reach out to the politicians to get them to have the state help fund the company or draw up a contract where DeCamp runs the service for New Jersey Transit."
Chellie Overbey, a receptionist for DeCamp was taking waves of phone calls at the company's headquarters in Montclair, from longtime customers.
"I love my job," said Overbey, who has been working for the company for six years. "I don't know what's next."
Reviewing an employee roster, she said that before the coronavirus, the company employed about 100 drivers and mechanics combined. That number had fallen to 38, she said.
On Tuesday, Jonathan DeCamp provided a sense of recent history, saying that the company's senior driver has been on the job since 1986, and the senior mechanic since 1978.
"It's always been a place that we cherish, that once you came here, they made it a home and we provide work for them."
The company thanked its customers for their support and referred them to njtransit.com for transportation alternatives.
Refunds of unused, unexpired tickets can be obtained by sending them and a self-addressed stamped envelope to DeCamp Bus Lines, Attn: Refunds, P.O. 581, Montclair, NJ 07042.
On the No. 66 bus Tuesday morning, the company showed its personal touch. The bus picked up passengers who waved it down, not necessarily from a designated stop. And when it became overcrowded, the driver, Rebecca Smith, called for another bus, which arrived shortly. Ten passengers smoothly switched buses, and the drive into Manhattan proceeded without a hitch.