July 1, 2015

655 Bus Will Likely End But Alternative Exists, More Being Explored

For those who rely on NJ Transit’s 655 bus for transportation between Princeton and the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro, prospects are dim for the future of the route. The line is among those that NJ Transit is proposing to discontinue as a way to cut costs as the agency’s federal grant runs out.

With a decision expected in a few weeks, efforts are being made by the municipality, the hospital and Princeton University to come up with an alternative. But it turns out that there is already a way for those without access to cars to get to and from the hospital.

“It’s important to let people know that there currently is a free and open-to-the-public way to get there, which is Tiger Transit,” said Kristin Appelget, the University’s director of Community and Regional Affairs. “It’s our Forrestal/Princeton Plasma Physics Lab route, which stops at Princeton [Dinky] station.”

Ms. Appelget said the University reviews the route of its Tiger Transit bus each year. “Given the change in the 655, we’re looking at how we may be able to modify the PPPL route. We’re considering two locations: Nassau Street or Merwick/Stanworth, and we will probably know by midsummer.”

NJ Transit introduced its proposal to cut routes and raise fares last April. The agency maintains that the changes are necessary to keep up with rising costs including employee healthcare and other benefits. The proposed state contribution to NJ Transit for fiscal year 2016 is currently $33 million, trimmed from $40.3 million. That subsidy was $73 million during each of the prior two fiscal years. It was as high as $278 million in 2005. It includes money taken from the Clean Energy Fund and $295 million from the Turnpike Authority, which was supposed to be for the cancelled ARC tunnel under the Hudson River.

Members of the New Jersey Fund for Transit, a coalition of public transportation advocates, have said that the service cuts and fare hikes are a result of the state’s failing system for funding public transportation. The Transportation Trust Fund, which is for transportation capital projects, is bankrupt.

Mayor Liz Lempert has been involved in the discussions to make sure Princeton residents without cars can continue to travel between downtown and the hospital. “We’ve been told the 655 bus could be terminated as soon as September, but there are no firm dates,” she said. “Right now, it’s still running.”

At its meeting June 22, Princeton Council heard the results of a transportation survey  administered by the health and human services departments. Some 50 people polled at a community meeting answered questions about transportation options they would consider using should the 655 disappear. The survey determined that 80 percent of those polled use public transportation as their primary means of getting around. Sixty-five percent of those people do not have cars, and 63 percent currently use the 655 bus. Sixty-two percent have used the hospital clinic during the past year.

Most respondents indicated they would be open to using Tiger Transit to get to and from the hospital. “The good news is that a high percentage showed interest,” said Ms. Lempert. “The survey also found that most residents never knew where to go to get vouchers for the 655. So communication about the alternatives is going to need to be much better.”

Vouchers are currently available in the medical building next to the former hospital site on Witherspoon Street, and at the clinic at the University Medical Center at Plainsboro.

While the 655 NJ Transit bus costs $1.50 for adults and 70 cents for children and seniors, Tiger Transit is free. But the latter route does not and will not extend as far as Princeton Shopping Center, which is a stop on the 655 line.

Another option being explored is an on-demand taxi service. “The hospital is looking into this. The details of who is qualified are still being worked out, as well as how it would be administered,” said Ms. Lempert. “It would be in addition to Tiger Transit and would probably be a sort of subsidized taxi service.”

Since announcing its proposal to cut lines including the 655 and raise fares by nine percent, NJ Transit has held several public hearings throughout the state. Ms. Lempert said she was planning to attend a press conference on Wednesday, July 1, at the Trenton Transit Station, to object to the proposed fare increases, which would raise a one-way trip between Princeton Junction and New York’s Penn Station from $16.50 to $17.75. The last fare hike, made five years ago, was 22 percent.

NJ Transit’s board is scheduled to meet on July 15. In the meantime, local efforts continue to ensure that public transportation of some sort will be available for those without access to a car. “There are still a lot of moving parts, but we’re planning to have a plan in place by the end of July so that we can start advertising and getting the word out,” Ms. Lempert said. “We’ve been in discussions with the University and the hospital. We’ll definitely be reaching out when there is firm information. NJ Transit and the hospital have said they’ll help get information out, and we will hold community meetings.”