Local lore claims that the first trolley cars were created in a factory in Secaucus near the turn of the 19th century. Secaucus even named Trolley Park after the electrified trolley that passed through town on its way from Jersey City and Hoboken to inland towns.
The trolley became one of the central means of transportation for a general public that could not afford a car. Power companies like Public Service Gas & Electric purchased right-of-ways, just as NJ Transit has more recently purchased right-of-ways for its light rail system, and an infrastructure of trolley lines criss-crossed the state. From 1916 until World War II, Public Service trolleys transported about 450 million people.
Sounding like the power companies of a century ago, who had people knocking on doors to ask people to get their homes “electrified,” organizers of the Feb. 6 rally sought to return to a time when electric power operated the transportation system, saying with new technological innovations this could be done without the messy string of wires that accompanied the now-ancient technologies when Thomas Edison and other inventors first introduced it.
The rally, organized by Jersey Renews in partnership with the Amalgamated Transit Union, brought together a diverse assembly of speakers to address how electrified public transportation could reduce air pollution, promote healthier communities, create jobs, and address climate change.
“Jersey City stands with Jersey Renews and the Amalgamated Transit Union in their mission to promote the electrification of transportation,” said Mayor Steven Fulop. “On a local level, we are actively finding ways to reduce pollution, and I am proud to announce that we are beginning the process of installing electric vehicle charging stations and transitioning our municipal fleet to electric power. Together, we will continue to find ways to reduce our carbon footprint and build cleaner, healthier communities throughout New Jersey.”
Making a point on a state level
The primary reason for the rally, said Nick Sifuentes, executive director for Tri-State Transportation Campaign, was to push NJ Transit to convert to electric vehicles. While many people associate NJ Transit with trains, he said, the agency runs more buses than trains.
“In New Jersey, buses carried almost 160 million passengers in 2016,” he said. “That’s 72 percent more passengers than rail. If you’re a commuter, taking a bus is always more environmentally sound than using a private car, but right now NJ Transit has an aging fleet of diesel buses in need of replacement.”
He said NJ Transit has already purchased a number of new buses, but intends to buy more and these should be electric.
“Electric buses are cost-competitive with traditional buses, thanks to lower maintenance costs and longer life spans,” he said. “If NJ Transit wants to be forward-looking and strive to meet our carbon goals, they’ll invest in electric bus replacements as diesel buses reach the end of their useful lives.”
New Jersey is one of the largest automobile markets in the country, rally organizers said. Light-duty automobiles, like a standard family car, are the dominant source of transportation pollution, but heavy-duty vehicles, typically diesel trucks for industrial or commercial use as well as buses, are also a significant source of emissions.
Local activists said that every traveled mile converted to electric is 70 percent cleaner than a gas-powered mile.
New Jersey has already taken steps to become a leader in electric vehicles, and is the first state to adopt a Clean Cars program through the legislature which includes a Zero Emissions Vehicle program, mandating aggressive growth.
But activists claim additional state investment in electric charging infrastructure and electrified mass transit, like the steps taken by Jersey City, is needed to push New Jersey to the front of the pack on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
“Gasoline-powered vehicles are harmful to our environment and our health, especially in dense urban areas like Jersey City,” said Analilia Mejia, director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance. “Dangerous levels of pollution from cars, trucks, and buses on busy roads and highways make thousands of New Jerseyans sick and cost us millions of dollars in avoidable healthcare expenses. Jersey City’s commitment to electrify their transportation system is a big step toward a cleaner environment , while promoting good paying green jobs for working families. We applaud Mayor Steve Fulop and the Jersey City Council for taking decisive action in promoting renewable energy and a cleaner environment,”
Dan Fatton, executive director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, said emissions from the transportation sector account for more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in New Jersey.
“So it’s critical that the state and other municipalities follow Jersey City’s lead by investing in alternative transportation, especially mass transit,” Fatton said. “The electrification of our bus fleets is just one common sense solution for confronting the climate crisis, with the added benefit of improving the health and safety of workers and community members.”
Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith executive director, Pamela Frank, CEO of ChargEVC, and Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, all said urban centers are particularly vulnerable to pollution from gasoline and diesel vehicles.
ATU NJ State Council chairman and State Business Agent Ray Greaves said the pollution affects those who work on these vehicles.
“Our drivers spend hours every day driving buses throughout New Jersey and we recognize that converting to electric buses can improve the air quality for them to breathe while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “NJ Transit plans to add 2,500 new vehicles. Pollution puts our employees at risk.”
“Port-adjacent and environmental justice communities like Newark need relief from dirty diesel whether it’s from transit buses or the 14,000 trucks coming in and out of the port every day,” said Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey State Director for Clean Water Action. “Converting diesel powered fleets to electric will not only significantly reduce our carbon footprint, but also the number of children gasping for air while experiencing an asthma attack, emergency visits, and premature death for those most vulnerable to pollution and its harms.”
The group of activists wants to see 330,000 plug-in vehicles by 2025 and more electric charging stations. New Jersey is expected to have 300 such stations by 2020 and as many as 500 by 2025. The group wants building code regulations changed to provide for home charging stations as well. Key to advancement of private vehicles, however, is the state pushing NJ Transit to electrify its fleet as a model for the community.
A national disgrace
Sifuentes said the groups have not yet approached Gov. Phil Murphy with the proposal. But he believes the governor will be sympathetic.
“Gov. Murphy has already expressed support for environmental issues, and he’s committed to the upgrade of New Jersey Transit.”
This comes at a time when Murphy is revamping NJ Transit leadership and has assigned new people to be in charge.
Murphy has called NJ Transit a national disgrace.
“As our infrastructure goes, so goes the state,” he said in a media report in December. “Mass transit is not an option. It’s pass or fail.”
A 2016 report by advocacy group New Jersey for Transit showed serious problems with the agency, but also with the lack of funding under previous administrations.
“Since 2002, New Jersey’s annual investment in maintaining, repairing and expanding its core public transit assets dropped by an inflation-adjusted 19.4 percent, even as ridership as grown by 20.2 percent,” the report said. “The lack of investment in maintaining and improving trains, rails, buses and other transit assets have led to infamous delays and frequent system breakdowns.”
Because the state has failed to adequately fund the system, NJ Transit has been forced to use capital funds for repairs to cover operating costs.
“Since the first time NJ Transit employed this gimmick in 1990, the agency has raided more than $6.5 billion from capital fund,” the report said.
This could have paid for light rail expansion from Hudson County into Bergen County as well as expansion of the Camden system and other projects throughout the state – which have largely been neglected.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.