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NJ County Paratransit Systems Town Hall Meeting Minutes

Subject: Town Hall Meeting; The National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey Sponsored a Town Hall Meeting about County Paratransit Systems with:

  • Keynote speaker Michael Vieira, a member of the New Jersey Council on Special Transportation (NJ COST) and the NJT Citizens Advisory Council (CAC)
  • Anna Magri, NJT Director Local Programs, Minibus Support and Community Transportation
  • Janelle Rivera, NJT Manager of Local Programs
  • Basil Giletto, NJ Transit Citizens Advisory Council (CAC) Chair, for Senior Citizens and People with Disabilities

The meeting was held to share how local county paratransit systems in New Jersey work to provide services to seniors, people with disabilities and low income individuals.  This meeting was coordinated by Linda Melendez, 1st Vice President, National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey (NFBNJ)  and Chair of the NFBNJ Access Link Transit Committee and Member and Liaison, NJ Transit Citizens Advisory Council (CAC).

Date/Time: Tuesday, June 30, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. The meeting started promptly at 8:00 p.m.
Media: Zoom
Host: Joe Ruffalo, President of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey (NFBNJ)
Co-host and moderator: Linda Melendez, 1st Vice President, NFBNJ
Attendees: Approximately 50 members and friends and our honored guests

Summary:

President Ruffalo thanked everyone for being on the call and said we are grateful to have this discussion with leaders representing New Jersey’s County Paratransit Systems so we can work together to solve issues of transportation that have a major impact on blind and vision impaired individuals.

Our guests shared with us the history of county paratransit systems in New Jersey, how they currently work and the plan to improve services for the stakeholders.

Meeting Details:

Anna Magri, shared about the history of NJ Transit Services stating that it is one of the largest in the nation and includes local bus services, light rail lines,  commuter rail lines, Access Link Paratransit services as well as county paratransit services serving 21 counties in New Jersey. She focused the bulk of her presentation on local programs, minibus support and community transportation as this is her job.

Anna works with Janelle Rivera to manage an annual budget of $49M from state revenues and private grants. A good amount of their budget comes from Casino Revenue Funding (SCDRTAP) and due to the Covid 19 Pandemic this income source is rapidly diminishing. The purpose of her office is to provide transportation services to meet the needs of senior citizens, people with disabilities, rural and low income residents.

Anna pointed out that there is no uniformity in the way local paratransit services operate—all counties operate differently however each county must have representation on the Citizens Advisory Council (CAC).

Janelle Rivera talked of some of the initiatives that are planned as we progress down the road to recovery and these will include educating the public about accessible services using videos. She also talked about strategies being used to keep riders and drivers safe and get people to important medical appointments, food shopping, pharmacy visits etc. by networking with other  service providers such as Lyft and Uber.

Janelle shared about the number of mobile applications that are available on NJ Transit and the need for a “Comprehensive Trip Planner” all under one application to better serve consumers. Finally, Janelle commented about testing going on with autonomous vehicles.

Anna and Janelle provided Linda Melendez with a copy of their slides and a list of telephone numbers for contacts on the Council on Special Transportation by county.

Basil Giletto is Chair of the NJ Transit Citizens Advisory Council (CAC). He thanked Linda for her membership on this Committee and said she brings a lot of value to the Council’s work.

Basil also shared about his personal family history of needing to provide transportation support to his mother who had medical issues that prevented her from driving herself. Basil works in the Limousine Transportation Industry out of Princeton. He spoke briefly about services in Mercer County and stated that as a member of CAC he needs to serve the stakeholders that  include the NFBNJ. He commented that revenues are diminishing, and it is critically important that residents of New Jersey complete the U.S. Census because this determines how much Federal financial support New Jersey will receive for county transportation systems.

Mr. Giletto said CAC membership includes people over 60 and those with a disability. Each county is represented and may not have more than three individuals from a designated region. All NJ Transit County Public Hearing Forms are open to the public and he thanked Linda Melendez for the email “Blast” to encourage members of the NFBNJ to attend their last meeting.

Michael Vieira, the Keynote Speaker, and a member of the New Jersey Council on Special Transportation (NJ COST) and the NJT Citizens Advisory Council (CAC) was last to share. Michael directs community transportation services in Essex County. He said NJ COST was founded in 1981 to provide services to seniors and people with disabilities. He said that the 21 New Jersey County Services are part of the COST organization. COST is an advocacy group for community transportation. He said they provide information to NJ Legislators and those who need assistance with transportation. While there are 21 counties in New Jersey, Burlington, and Camden work together thus there are 20 county wide transportation initiatives throughout the state. All counties operate differently. Some services are strictly geared towards seniors and disabled individuals while others include economically disadvantage individuals and rural dwellers. Also, the scope of services may be different from county to county. For example, some counties focus on urgent care needs (medical, food shopping, pharmacies, jobs etc.) and others include non-essential travel. Some counties charge fares and others don’t. Services are impacted by funding. As previously stated county programs are supported by the NJ Casino Revenue Fund and transportation receives 8.5% of what goes into this fund. In the 1980’s, this was great however, due to the pandemic revenues have greatly diminished.

County run paratransit systems determine the “map” of their services. So, where you live matters. In Essex County services are provided up to 10 miles outside the county. This may not be the case in other counties. He said the pandemic has provided new challenges to providing ridership as we need to adhere to social distancing requirements, and this means that less people can be transported at one time. All riders and drivers must wear masks and initially services were triaged to assure people who require kidney dialysis, chemotherapy and other lifesaving  medical care were given first priority for rides. Through the use of weekly Zoom Meetings county service providers were able to meet and strategize and learn from each other. Essex county also leveraged their capacity by using third party providers like Lyft and Uber. Throughout the crisis Essex County has provided upwards of 150 to 175 rides a day. While we are on the “Road to Recovery” the road is a bumpy one and we don’t know what will happen with a second round of Covid.

President Ruffalo thanked all our guests for their informative presentations and for the services they provide to the community. He said we are also grateful to the drivers who are first responders in the pandemic. We need to continue to show mutual respect for each other and realize that we need to meet each other in the middle to maximize these services for our communities.

Questions and Answers:

Linda Melendez coordinated questions from the floor.

Q: Essex County:  There was a lot of valuable information shared and as a resident of Essex County for 20 years and a long time member of the NFB I was unaware of all these services and I suspect others aren’t either. We need to get this information out to the consumer.

A: Michael Vieira encourage folks to call him at 973 395 8418 to discuss how we can better work together to assure folks who qualify for these services are aware of them. Anna Magri said she provided Linda with a copy of their slides (Janelle and Anna’s) as well as key contact information and hopes Linda will share this with NFBNJ members. She said we are always looking for feedback. Linda Melendez commented about our Newsline that is supported by the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI) and this is a tool that could help to disperse the information to blind New Jerseyeans. She asked Jane Degenshein to speak about Newsline and she did. All agreed this was an excellent suggestion. President Ruffalo emphasized that Newsline is available to all print disabled individuals.

Q: Bergen County: for 30 years I have been working without success to get para transit services in our county. Who do I contact to address the needs of Bergen County?

A: Anna Magri said we have a new Director of County Para Transit services in Bergen County and vehicles to operate throughout the county including Mahwah. She has provided Linda Melendez with these contacts and their telephone numbers. Please do reach out to express your concerns and needs.

Q: Burlington County: With New Jersey having a proud history of “home rule” do you think there will ever be consistency in county to county services?

A: Michael Vieira: I don’t think so except for the two counties (Burlington and Camden) that are run by the same agency. Each county has different funding revenues—some counties contribute funding (Essex does) and other counties do not. Less resources leads to less services. We do encourage a level of county cooperation; however, we cannot control decisions.

Q: Union County: asked about a “Central Hub” for sharing information about county paratransit services as there is so much information on different apps and it is hard to get your arms around it. Also, could the information be accessible through Amazon Echo?

A: Anna Magri said all counties must list transportation services. These can be found on websites and in libraries. She also said they are working on a “Comprehensive Trip Planner” as mentioned by Janelle that would involve access to a single App. We want to know about all the accessible apps that can be used to share this information.

Q: Morris County:  When I reached out to Morris County paratransit services I was directed to the town “Dial-a-Ride” because of my zip code.

A: Michael Vieira: This should not be the only option available and she should reach out to Morris County Area Para Transit System (MAPS). A new Director has been appointed in Morris County.

Q: Mercer County: Is it up to the counties to have partnerships with Lyft and Uber?

A: Michael Vieira: these partnerships are encouraged. Basil Giletto said Mercer County has Ride Provide and this does partner with Lyft and Uber.  He suggested calling:  609 452 1491 for more information.

Q: Middlesex County: How are travel “borderlines established”. He has a doctor five miles away from his home and was forced to get a doctor 15 miles away in order to stay within county borders (Monmouth and Middlesex).

A: Anna Magri: please call the new Director to see how his needs can better be served. This is a great opportunity to “make service happen”. (Note: Linda Melendez confirmed that she will be sending out contact information for the counties as provided to her).

Q: Burlington County: I reached out to my county and they directed me to “Dial-a-Ride”. Was this due to my address?

A: Michael Vieira: “Dial-a-Ride” is contracted by some counties to provide services.

Note: All the members who asked questions thanked the guests for their informative presentations. (Note—other members were muted to control outside distractions).

President Ruffalo and First Vice President thanked all the participants and our guest speakers for their educational and motivational presentations and for the time they took from their evening to share with the NFBNJ. Linda stated our goal is “CPS”: Communicate, Participate and Share!

The meeting was adjourned at 9:44 p.m.

Minutes respectfully submitted by Ellen Sullivan, Affiliate Secretary and reviewed by Joe Ruffalo, President and Linda Melendez First Vice President, NFBNJ

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