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Orange County Commuters push for Rush Hour travel improvements

April 17, 2006 By Judy Rife Times Herald-Record jrife@th-record.com

If the morning's first commuters can't have a connecting PATH train waiting for them when they get to Hoboken Terminal, then they want the next best thing: six-minute headways.

"PATH should run on peak schedules,'' said William Cano of Washingtonville. "The commuter day at Hoboken now starts at 6 a.m., not at 7 or 8, like it did 10 or so years ago."

The Port Authority's PATH system, however, doesn't begin running trains every six minutes until almost 7:30 a.m., after 27 NJ Transit and Metro-North trains have already delivered thousands of commuters to Hoboken. Between 6 a.m., when service begins, and about 7:30 a.m., PATH trains to the World Trade Center and 33rd Street run on 10-minute headways. They shorten to six minutes at the peak of rush hour and lengthen to 12 minutes about 9:30 a.m., after everybody is at work.

The result, for the 682 Orange County commuters who ride the morning's first three trains, can be a long wait for a PATH connection. And this is no small thing for people who start their journey to work before moonset and equate any time "lost" or "wasted" en route with a theft of vacation time. "I was always missing PATH, so I go through Secaucus now and take a cab from Penn downtown to the office," said Joe Schaefer of Harriman, who wants to be at his desk at 7 a.m. "On a good day, I save 20 minutes and on a not-so-good day, 15. But I'd go back to PATH if the schedule improved and save that $100 a month I'm spending on cabs."

Early ridership up

The Port Authority, NJ Transit and Metro-North Railroad feel Schaefer's pain. After all, mass transit agencies are seeing their biggest increases in ridership on their earliest trains and buses and boosting schedules accordingly. But there is a 9/11 asterisk to the trend at Hoboken Terminal, on PATH and in lower Manhattan. The number of riders and the number of jobs have yet to return to their pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels and until they do, until demand builds, PATH is likely to retain those 10-minute headways.

"Some people are on my train for almost two hours and then because of some serious poor scheduling/coordination, they are forced to wait for 10 minutes, after doors (on a PATH train) practically close in their faces,'' said Keith Duffy of Monroe. "Our train can travel 60 miles in 60 minutes but then, if we miss PATH, it takes us basically another 23 minutes to get downtown, which is what, two miles? I am considering keeping a Jet Ski in Hoboken."

PATH connections became a hot-button issue 18 months ago when Metro-North made routine schedule adjustments, an April and October ritual. Suddenly, commuters couldn't make their old connections. Their howls prompted Metro-North and NJ Transit to ask the Port Authority to dispatch PATH trains on the fours (6:14, 6:24, etc.) instead of on the ones to improve connections with the first trains from Port Jervis.

The fix, however, only applied to PATH's World Trade Center line and not to its 33rd Street line. And then, it didn't always work and it didn't last. Trains got to Hoboken late and timetables changed again and again. The next new schedule kicks in on April 23 and connections could get better - or worse. So many commuters have decided the better - and simpler - fix would be six-minute headways. More frequent PATH service would mean less downtime regardless of when their Metro-North trains reach Hoboken. "It would be pointless," said Marjorie Anders, a Metro-North spokeswoman. "We have only three trains (between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.), and they arrive roughly every 30 minutes. If PATH ran every six minutes, nobody from Metro-North would be getting on them."

A shift to Midtown

Rush-hour ridership to Hoboken on NJ Transit's trains has fallen every year since 2001, and the agency gets few complaints about PATH connections. Commuters are more interested in connections between Secaucus Junction and Pennsylvania Station in Midtown, the employment epicenter since Sept. 11. "You wouldn't try to rewrite the timetable for trains arriving at Grand Central Terminal to connect to the New York City subway,'' said Dan Stessel, an NJ Transit spokesman. "And we view PATH as a kind of subway because of its frequent headways."

Kevin Lejda, PATH's assistant superintendent, said he believes 10-minute headways are "appropriate" right now given the ridership between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. "We're pretty much maxed out in terms of what we can do with our existing crews, so cost effectiveness is a factor here too,'' Lejda said. "Of course, if we saw enough of an increase in ridership to justify the expense, we'd add more people and we'd have more frequent service."

Before the 9/11 attacks shut down the system for two years, 26,736 commuters used PATH to reach all points in Manhattan from Hoboken between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. - 2,903 of them prior to 7 a.m. Today, ridership is 16,394 between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 1,773 between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.

At least one Orange County commuter doesn't have a quarrel with the Port Authority's position. Marty Rabinowitz of Monroe, a commuter for more than 20 years, says he has finally made peace with it. "I guess I'm mellowing out in my old age, but "¦ I have come to realize that commuting should not be treated like an Olympic event,'' said Rabinowitz. "We are not going to win any gold medals (for saving minutes and seconds). After all, we are only going to work."

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