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Sweeney, Weinberg Outline Legislation to Reform Paratransit, Improve Service and Reduce Costs

Lawmakers urge NJ Transit to limit Access Link contracts to three years, defer vote on Bergen contract pending resolution of union complaints
Trenton – Senate President Steve Sweeney and Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg today outlined legislation to improve the quality of paratransit by enabling client-based service agencies to adopt best practices pioneered by Mercer ARC that drastically cut travel times, reduced accident rates and lowered costs.
“New Jersey’s paratransit services for physically and developmentally disabled people who cannot use regular bus and rail service is a crazy quilt of overlapping and too-often inefficient services that fails to meet the needs of the most vulnerable,” said Senator Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland). “Fortunately, there are models that work, and we need to bring those best practices to our paratransit network. These reforms are especially important in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, which will put new demands on all mass transit services.”
The Sweeney-Weinberg reform legislation is designed to address complaints voiced at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on NJ Transit by physically and developmentally disabled riders and their advocates about Access Link. Complaints included three-hour circuitous trips, difficulties in scheduling, and overlapping service because of inefficient coordination between Access Link and the 21 county-based paratransit systems that oversee transportation by local service agencies.
The senators urged the NJ Transit Board to limit new contracts for Access Link services to the normal three-year length and not approve longer-term contract extensions that would limit the ability for needed reforms.
“Two new contracts for Access Link services in Bergen and Atlantic counties are up for a vote tomorrow by the NJ Transit Board,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “The Board has the option of either approving a three-year contract or going along with NJ Transit management’s request to approve a three-year contract with two two-year extensions that would lock us into seven-year contracts with no ability to rebid. Three years should be the maximum. But it might be better to defer the Bergen contract altogether until we can fully investigate the complaints made by the union.”
In a letter forwarded to NJ Transit, Guy James, International Representative for the International Union of Journeymen & Allied Trades, complained about the labor practices of First Transit, the winning bidder in Bergen-based Region 6.  James said First Transit has launched a layoff of 225 workers after rejecting a union proposal that would have continued healthcare coverage for workers. The union said it is filing a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board. The union said other paratransit employers in the state worked with the union to enact a voluntary furlough program that continued health insurance coverage, and also did a better job providing Personal Protective Equipment and sanitizing vans for the safety of both employees and passengers.
The contract for First Transit, along with the contract for the Easton Coach Company, the winning bidder in Atlantic-based Region 3, are on the agenda for tomorrow’s board meeting.
The senators said their paratransit reform legislation is designed to address inefficiencies and gaps in the way that transportation services are provided. The bill would establish a pilot program to expand the capacity of local social service agencies serving the developmentally disabled to adopt Mercer ARC’s transportation model and provide professional transportation services.
“We can and need to do a better job,” said Senator Sweeney. “Mercer ARC developed a program that cut average travel time from 90 minutes to 30 minutes, cut per-passenger costs by 50 percent, and sharply reduced the number of accidents. Best of all, the drivers on their routes work directly for the agencies, know their passengers and are better able to meet their special needs.
“Many developmentally disabled adults travel to work or day programs on the same route every day. Saving an hour a day each way on these daily trips immeasurably enhances their quality of life,” he said.
The bill also would establish regional coordinating committees made up of representatives of local service agencies, county transportation departments, NJ Transit, the Department of Human Services and advocates to more efficiently coordinate transportation for person with disabilities. It would require NJ Transit to coordinate with other transportation providers to shift regular routine trips from Access Link to lower-cost transportation providers and to incentive its Access Link contract carriers to make their customers aware of other transportation alternatives.