Responding to increasing criticism of its commuter service to and from New York, DeCamp Bus Lines participated in a community forum in Bloomfield on April 30 to get feedback from dissatisfied riders on a myriad of problems including but not limited to canceled buses, delays, insolent drivers, and surly dispatchers.
The meeting, held at Watching Presbyterian Church, was arranged in part by Bloomfield Second Ward Councilman Nick Joanow after receiving complaints about DeCamp and learning that New Jersey State Senator Ronald Rice and State Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (both D-28th Dist.) had also heard from constituents about the issue. Senator Rice was at the meeting, which was well-attended by DeCamp riders despite heavy rain, while Assemblyman Caputo sent Rich Ferrugia, his deputy chief of staff, in his stead. Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia also attended.
Jonathan DeCamp, vice president of DeCamp Bus Lines, read a statement in which he had heard the complaints from riders and said he heard them loud and clear.
“If there is one thing I want you guys to take away from this tonight, ” he said, “it’s that we care, we really do. Our passengers are extremely important to us, and we want to try to get things corrected.”
DeCamp comptroller Erwin Pantel followed with an analysis of the difficulties the company faces, some due to internal problems and other s based on circumstances beyond its control. He explained that several bus drivers have been dealing with medical problems or have been out on workers’ compensation, with anywhere from 17 top 20 percent of drivers being absent, and new hires hard to recruit and train. The buses themselves, which are leased from the state via a federal subsidy, are aging faster than they can be replaced and are increasingly prone to breakdowns. Pantel also said that the past winter has strained the fleet even more, while the closure of the Pulaski Skyway has had an adverse impact on traffic going into Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel. Schedules have had to be adjusted accordingly.
“There’s never a day that we operate in the Lincoln Tunnel or through the Lincoln Tunnel that we don’t experience significant traffic,” Pantel said.
Many of the riders at the meeting were angry with lack of communication between the company and the riders, particularly with canceled buses that threw off people’s schedules and failure to inform riders via Twitter of evening rush delays. Pantel had told the audience that a Global Position System (GPS) network to monitor progress on routes was looked at but was deemed too costly. Riders scoffed at this, suggesting that a cell phone application could be created for DeCamp customers to subscribe to in order to keep tabs on buses. Mr. DeCamp said he could look into that as a possibility. DeCamp uses Twitter to convey delays of morning-rush buses.
Riders also complained about the drivers themselves, with rider J. Andrew Smith citing instances regarding, among other things, a female driver drinking hot coffee from a Thermos while navigating the helix into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and elderly women who was not helped getting off a bus on a rainy day, and Smith’s own wife, nine months pregnant, almost losing her balance when the driver started the moment the couple and one person boarded the vehicle.
“Will you,” Smith asked Jonathan DeCamp, “fire drivers who don’t understand your great-grandfather’s definition of public service and replaced them with drivers who do?”
DeCamp urged riders to report the behavior of the drivers, along with the date and time and the bus numbers, so that the company can take punitive action. Pat Johnson, a West Caldwell resident who takes the bus to get to his job as a New York City taxi driver, suggested that drivers have photo IDs clearly visible in the buses just as his is in his cab.
Senator Rice also said that reporting problems should be a priority, not just among bus riders but among DeCamp and other independent bus lines in the state, particularly regarding issues that the state is obligated to help with. “I think it’s incumbent for DeCamp’s and others’ leadership, when they’re having problems that need to be addressed somewhat by the legislature – if in fact we can address them, we don’t know until we hear about them – they should be in touch with us.” Rice said he was displeased that he had to hear from elected officials rather than from DeCamp about problems that should have been addressed much earlier.
Some riders called for a renumbering of DeCamp’s historically double-numeric routes – there are three different #33 buses, two of which go between New York and West Caldwell by either Upper Montclair or Bloomfield and a third between New York and Montclair – to avoid confusion among commuters who use one route or another, while others called DeCamp to task for dispatchers unable or unwilling to relay bus information. Pat Johnson also questioned the lack of open Academy Bus ticket windows, where DeCamp tickets are sold, at the bus terminal. Pantel said that DeCamp, being too small to operate its own ticket windows in New York, relies on Academy to transact ticket sales for them and has no ability to get Academy to open more. Senator Rice said that, as a New Jersey company, Academy could be made to cooperate and open more windows to reduce wait times.
A major problem cited was the bus terminal itself, and how increasingly difficult it is for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to handle increased bus traffic in the 64-year-old facility. Pantel told riders and re-iterated for Baristanet that the Port Authority is unable to open an inbound bus lane at the Lincoln Tunnel on afternoons to get more buses into the city for the outbound evening rush, citing the authority’s need to maintain an even flow of traffic and keep the tunnel safe during the evening rush hour. The lack of available buses for outbound traffic has caused long lines at the DeCamp gates.
Former Montclair Councilor Don Zief, now chairman of the Montclair Transportation Advisory Committee, lamented that he only has one bus rider on his committee and has trouble getting more. He noted that people prefer the bus over the train because bus lighting is better and riders tend to be more friendly with each other, but he feared that the ridership is dwindling because of DeCamp’s troubles. Pantel vowed to do what he could to respond to riders’ concerns.
“We care about you,” he said. “It’s not ‘us and them,’ you and us.’ We’re in this together, we really are. We need you as much as you need us.”