FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders authorized the Department of Human Services to apply for and be the sub-recipient of $156,000 in matching state grants funds through New Jersey Transit for the period of July 1 through June 30, 2021, in order to fund pieces of the LINK County public bus service for low-income Hunterdon residents.

Hunterdon County CFO Janet Previte said the New Jersey Job Access/Reserve Commute (NJ-JARC) Agreement Round 7 for the 2020-2021 period includes an increase of $36,000 for this grant and matching county funds from last year’s totals. The NJ-JARC represents a repeat grant bid for the county with matching amounts for the coming year of $156,000 in state grant money, to go with $156,000 in county funds.

“This grant through NJ Transit provides for transportation services for employment and employment-related activities in a suburban setting,” she said. “This funds pieces of the LINK countywide bus both for their weekday evenings and Saturday runs to help people get to employment or employment-related activities in Hunterdon County. This is for serving the low-income population, and it’s a repeat grant from NJ Transit for as long as I can remember.”

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Freeholder J. Matthew Holt, now in his 14th year on the freeholder board, said the NJ-JARC Agreement grant has continued annually for funding LINK rides over many years. NJ Transit does not directly provide any intra-county bus services in Hunterdon County.

Six weeks ago, at the Feb. 4 board meeting, deputy freeholder director Susan Soloway said one of her chief goals for 2020 is increasing grant funding to the LINK system. Its costs are funded by both state and federal grant funds, as well as Hunterdon County tax dollars.
Soloway said that in 2018, the LINK system provided over 137,800 passenger trips.

In 2019, then freeholder director Suzanne Lagay appointed Soloway to the county’s Transportation Task Force. The conversations and topics there evoked her interests in serving the public transportation and long-term planning needs for Hunterdon County residents.

“During my first year on the board, I learned that our LINK system serves the senior population, the disabled and people who don’t readily have transportation for conducting their daily lives for getting to work, attending their medical appointments or even for shopping,” Soloway said.

“Coming from municipal government in Franklin Township, I really did not know anything about the LINK bus,” she added. “We’d see it around sporadically. My freeholder liaison role was with the County Human Services Department, and a huge LINK clientele is organized through that department.”

Transportation Task Force research resulted in the selection of Easton Coach Company as the county’s new bus vendor in 2020, replacing First Transit Inc. Soloway said the task force zeroed-in on learning what the LINK was about, “getting numbers together as the county went out for a competitive bid for a provider.”

“We wanted to know what the big issues are, who it’s serving, are current routes good,” she said. “There were ways of achieving a more data-driven countywide operation.”

Soloway said in a later interview that there’s a population of Hunterdon residents the freeholder board and administrators won’t ignore, as LINK helps provide levels of reliable transportation for people. She said she remains intent on bettering the LINK in a fiscally responsible way, while improving operations for Hunterdon residents who rely on it.

By mid-2020, Soloway said, the county administration should have more data on LINK ridership levels and if there is a need to provide more buses covering the two services –on-demand rides for individuals in need, as well as scheduled bus routes with permanent stops.

Something to consider down the road are LINK’s potential role in rides for companies that more people work for, as well as energy efficiency if the county LINK can be served by electric “eBus” public transportation. Soloway noted that the largest employer in Hunterdon County – in Flemington, Hunterdon Medical Center on Westcott Drive and Rt. 31 – already has an electric-vehicle charging station installed on its property.

“We just started with Easton Coach as LINK bus provider and we will see ridership and if we are meeting each others’ needs, vendor (Easton Coach) and client (Hunterdon County),” she said. “We get these buses provided by the State of New Jersey, and at present the smaller LINK buses/passenger vans are working well. Considering that our county is pretty rural, the vehicles do have more miles to accumulate than a city bus would. Smaller bus sizes are better for Hunterdon County and preliminary indications on ridership, and the only reason we had larger LINK buses in service were because they came to us for free.”