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Post-attack freebies end on NJ Transit light rail trains

10/31/01  By Joe Malinconico Newhouse News Service

Starting tomorrow, NJ Transit will stop giving free rides to the thousands of passengers who switched to the agency's light-rail system after the terrorist attacks forced the closing of Exchange Place PATH station in Jersey City.

In the days after the World Trade Center disaster, many commuters who could no longer ride PATH trains directly to Exchange Place instead took the light rail the rest of the way, a trip that is a little less than a mile long. That crush of new riders overwhelmed the light rail station, where long lines formed at the ticket machines, quickly prompting NJ Transit to allow PATH passengers to make the switch to light rail for free.

As a result, about 2,500 people a day make 5,000 one-way trips on the trolleys between Pavonia and Exchange Place, increasing the system's ridership by almost 50 percent, said NJ Transit spokesman Ken Miller. Many of them are riders from Bergen, Passaic, Essex and Morris counties who take NJ Transit trains to Hoboken and then catch the PATH trains into Jersey City's growing Exchange Place business district.

But the free rides for commuters have cost the agency close to $250,000, a financial burden for a rail system whose fares cover only a small percentage of its operating costs. "We need to return to fare normalcy on Hudson-Bergen Light Rail," said NJ Transit Executive Director Jeff Warsh. Tomorrow, folks who take the light rail from Pavonia to Exchange Place will have to buy a ticket. A one-way fare is $1.50, while a monthly pass is $53. The rest of the light rail system has continued its regular fare structure the past two months.

Some commuters expect the ranks of light rail riders between Pavonia and Exchange Place to thin out quickly with the resumption of the fares. "Nobody I know wants to pay the extra $3 for that short a ride," said Katie Pope of Maywood. Pope predicted that some commuters would walk from Pavonia to Exchange Place, or stay on the PATH trains to the Grove Street station and walk from there. The PATH system is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Transportation advocacy groups acknowledged that NJ Transit cannot afford to continue to lose money on the free light rail rides. But Leonard Resto, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, suggested that the Port Authority and NJ Transit try to work out some discounted fare for folks who can no longer make the trip to Exchange Place on one PATH train. "An extra $3 a day is really going to hurt your clerical workers or secretaries, the people making $30,000 a year," Resto said.

Kristen Fountain, spokeswoman for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a watchdog group, said she was concerned that the resumption of the light-rail fares from Pavonia to Exchange Place would bring back the gridlock that occurred the week of Sept.. 11 when long lines formed at the ticket machines. NJ Transit says it hopes it has prevented those problems by installing 15 ticket machines at the Pavonia trolley platform and connecting PATH stations.

The trolleys do not use turnstiles and instead have fare inspectors who roam the trains checking tickets, a task made difficult on crowded trains.

Some commuters suggested that riders would try to get away with not buying tickets for the short ride between Pavonia and Exchange Place.

Transit officials, however, say they will have extra fare inspectors after the resumption of the fares. The fine for not paying the fare on a light rail is $100.

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