After more than a year of grassroots campaigning, a West Orange resident has successfully obtained jitney service to shuttle people in a part of town with many Jewish commuters to NJ Transit train stations in nearby towns.
The service is expected to start in August, after the cost — estimated at around $75,000 — is approved at the Township Council’s next budget meeting in March.
The impetus for the jitney came from Deena Rubin, a local realtor who has lamented for years that West Orange has no train station of its own.
“We were losing young people to other more commutable communities that have direct train lines or jitney service to train stations in other towns,” she said. “Ultimately it affects property values if you don’t have these services to offer everybody from all parts of town. It is unacceptable.”
Jitney service has provided a link between Manhattan-bound commuters and residents in select neighborhoods of West Orange. Many of Rubin’s prospective clients chose to buy homes elsewhere because there was no public transportation service between their neighborhoods and railroad stations in other towns.
She began crusading for the jitney service in early 2015, and first raised the subject at a meeting with West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, arguing that the town should provide commuter service for the Redwood and Pleasantdale sections of West Orange. The mayor told her that “hopefully” they would launch the service in the area off Pleasant Valley Way bordered by Interstate Route 280 on the south and the Verona border on the north in the next year. She left feeling positive, she said, “but nothing happened.”
She intensified her campaign in January 2016, organizing rabbis and members of synagogues in the Pleasantdale and Redwood areas — the Orthodox Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, Congregation Ohr Torah, and Young Israel, and the Conservative B’nai Shalom — all situated along Pleasant Valley Way.
But she didn’t stop with the Jewish community, and reached out to other residents and local businesses, inviting them to a meeting at her home. Among the 20 people who attended, she said, the reaction was “pulsating.”
The people who attended that meeting broke into smaller groups to attack the issue from different angles, including marketing, planning routes, and estimating costs. “I didn’t want to start a fight with the mayor’s office,” she said.
But she was told the main stumbling was expense, especially when it came to insurance rates and hiring drivers.
“I get that,” she said. “But I’m paying taxes like everybody else in this town, and I want the same service everybody else has been getting.”
When one township committee member suggested that jitney riders be charged a small fee, such as $1 a ride, Rubin had a ready answer. “It was unfair that we pay a fee and people in other parts of town do not.”
The idea of imposing the fee brought many advocates to a township committee meeting in May. “We said, ‘We all love the town and we want to see the community grow, but we want the same attention and service that everybody else gets.’”
One of the big problems her committee tackled was where commuters would park their cars before boarding the jitney. AABJ&D offered its large parking lot, as did the Pleasantdale Presbyterian Church a few blocks away at the corner of Eagle Rock Avenue and Pleasant Valley Way.
Council member Michelle Casalino became the first local elected official to push for the project. A fellow member of the real estate industry, she met Rubin at an open house for real estate agents sponsored by the town of West Orange. “It was mainly because I was in the right place at the right time,” said Casalino.
She told Rubin and her committee members that grants from NJ Transit initially provided the start of the town’s jitney service. Then “grants dried up and it had to be folded into the town budget,” Casalino said.
The council has not had detailed discussion on the new jitney and its proposed route, according to Casalino. “Obviously it is going to enhance the appraised values of homes in these neighborhoods. Adding any additional service in these neighborhoods will increase market value,” she said.
Asked whether it could trigger a rise in property taxes, Casalino said, “We are going to have to see what the mayor proposes. This is all preliminary. It is a work in progress. The routes and the budget figures are being worked on.”
Although she may be the project’s biggest booster, Rubin said she’ll oppose any increase in property taxes.
“Our property taxes are among the highest in Essex County,” said Rubin. “If they think they are going to offer us another service and pay for it by raising our taxes, there will be people stampeding town hall.”