July 16, 2008

Shuttle Bus Idea Timely With Gas at $4 a Gallon


Anyone who has wasted $4-a-gallon gasoline on Chestnut Ridge Road and scores of other rush-hour time killers in Montvale, Park Ridge and Woodcliff Lake would have cheered over the simple commuter rail solution that was floated Tuesday.

After wringing their hands for two decades over Pascack Valley's limited train service, Montvale planners and elected officials invited bigwigs from NJ Transit and Bergen County for breakfast in an auditorium filled with local employers. Besides coffee and doughnuts, they fed them a stopgap measure for getting thousands of people to and from work without clogging the roads:

Shuttle buses.

"A no-brainer," said County Executive Dennis McNerney.

It was a phrase repeated several times in the two-hour session at a Montvale conference center. If it wasn't for $4 gas, however, most agreed that any solution to this old rail issue would not have attracted much of a crowd.

The plan called for one of three commuting alternatives, or some combination of the three, with limited changes to existing rail schedules. Specifically, it would:

* Adjust the Pascack Valley rail schedule for two rush-hour departures morning and evening to accommodate a shuttle from the Montvale station through the tri-borough corporate zone.

* Provide a shuttle from the Route 17 Ramsey station through the zone.

* Introduce express bus service from Bloomfield's Brookdale Park and Ride to the Montvale Park and Ride to reach the shuttle through the zone.

Initiated by Montvale planners and modeled after a Cambridge, Mass., system, the plan aims to relieve traffic on the Garden State Parkway and local roads, as well as provided a market for the Pascack Valley line, said traffic engineer John Pavolovich. It would offer needed east-west ac-

cess through Bergen and complement plans to add Northern Branch rail service to the region, added County Planning Director Farouk Ahmad.

Most important, it would offer incentives to stay in Pascack Valley for any of the region's 943 companies considering moves to places with better access to employees, said Montvale Planning Director John DePinto.

"This plan provides transportation alternatives to a workforce of 23,500, many of whom are unable to spend $4 a gallon on a lengthy commute," DePinto added.

This message was not lost on the employers in the audience, especially those planning to expand their parking facilities.

"When it costs $25,000 per parking space, you begin to appreciate why it's not feasible," said Charles Shady of Mercedes-Benz.

"Our company is in competition with 48 other states, so we sometimes have to prove that New Jersey is the right place to be," said Chris Gallo, an executive for KPMG. "This kind of proposal helps me make the case."

One company Sony of Park Ridge has challenged its executives to find mass transit solutions, said Sony executive Phil Diana.

"This sounds like a wonderful solution," said Diana, "but we need to do something now."

Nothing ever gets done in a hurry, said DePinto. Expanding the Pascack Valley line for regular rush hour commuter service would be a lengthy, costly move.

Shuttles, however, could be developed with cooperation from the county, NJ Transit, the corporate sector and non-profit transportation management agencies like Meadow Link which operates in Bergen.

These agencies organize commuter ride-sharing programs usually funded by local companies and government.

"What we're asking you to do," he said, "is serve on a committee to get this done. All we have now are a few planning concepts that the experts would have to refine."

Financing shuttles with federal money can be tricky, said former Montvale Mayor Barry Zeller.

"NJ Transit might give us buses funded by the federal government to run the program," said Zeller. "But we might have to fund the driver and a second bus and a second driver assuming the federal program lasts."

Hillsdale Mayor John Sapanara said the tri-town region might be too small to organize a big enough shuttle program. DePinto agreed.

"There are 10 towns in Pascack Valley plus Pearl River and Spring Valley, N.Y.," he said. "We're all part of the problem. We're all part of the solution."

NJ Transit's executives withheld comment pending review.

"We really like partnering," said Debbie Hirt, the agency's Bergen-Morris regional manager. "What you've started today is very impressive."


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