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Gloucester County passenger rail a crime aid? Not by the stats
Gloucester County passenger rail a crime aid? Not by the stats
Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Lucas K. Murray
WOODBURY With plans for light rail service unrolling in Gloucester County, safety concerns continue to trouble some residents.
One of the big questions surrounding PATCO service expansion is whether the line from Camden to Glassboro would serve as cheap and efficient transportation for felons as well as law-abiding citizens.
Proponents of the line say that mass transit is not directly related to crime. They point to crime statistics for towns served by NJ Transit's River LINE as well as the existing PATCO service in Camden County.
Asked about fears of rampant criminal activity, Delaware River Port Authority CEO John Matheussen said, "We've not seen that on the River LINE. In fact, we've seen quite the opposite. We've not seen it on our other lines, including PATCO. It's not been our experience for those things to occur."
This week, the Times took an independent look at the evidence.
Of the 20 stations found along the RiverLINE, twelve of them are located outside Trenton and Camden City. They're the stops most similar to the ones planned for towns in Gloucester County.
Figures from the state's Unified Crime Report (UCR), a yearly roundup of crime statistics compiled by the New Jersey State Police, show that, on the whole, crime has not increased in these twelve towns since the RiverLINE made its inaugural trip in 2004.
Many of the statistical categories actually show a decrease in crime.
The most recent UCR numbers are available only through 2007. To compare crime in the towns before and after the train, the Times examined UCR figures for 2001, which is three years before the River LINE started; 2004, the year it became operational; and 2007, the last available State Police survey.
The Crime Index Total (CIT) is the number of violent crimes combined with non-violent crimes for the period of one year. Violent crimes include murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Non-violent crimes consist of burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.
Of the twelve towns examined, only two - Delanco and Pennsauken - saw increases in the CIT for the last seven years. Delanco almost doubled its totals between 2004 and 2007, seeing jumps in burglary and larceny. Pennsauken saw similar figures with an additional increase in vehicle thefts.
However, the towns of Beverly, Burlington City, Cinnaminson, Edgewater Park, Florence, Palmyra, Riverton and Riverside - all being more similar in socio-economics and demographics to Gloucester County towns - experienced a decrease in crime during the seven-year period. It should be noted, though, that Burlington City, Florence, Palmyra and Riverton saw scant increases in the CIT for the three-year period leading up to 2007.
Overall, the CIT shows that crime is down in Camden County.
In the majority of Gloucester County towns with proposed stops for PATCO light rail expansion, crime has also decreased on the whole. Even the county's two urban areas, Woodbury and Glassboro - which have ranked high in the crime index totals in the past - report less criminal activity in recent years.
In Glassboro, instances of both violent and non-violent crimes decreased between 2001 and 2007. Burglaries were up, however, as were cases of larceny.
Woodbury City saw decreases in non-violent crimes, especially burglaries and larcenies, for the same time period.
Comparing 2001 and 2007, the borough of Westville did see an increase in crime index totals with boosts in violent and non-violent crimes. Robberies were up while burglaries were down.
Pitman and Wenonah's crime index totals dropped during the seven-year period, with Pitman seeing a drastic reduction in the number of non-violent offenses committed.
But public transportation isn't a new concept for residents of Pitman, Westville, Woodbury or Glassboro. For many years, NJ Transit has run several buses an hour through each town making numerous stops. All four towns were once passenger rail stops as well.
In Pitman, Capt. Robert Zimmerman said the bus hasn't been a problem, and that there has been very little criminal activity directly associated with it. He agreed that there is no evidence to support claims that light rail has increased the criminal activity in towns where it passes through.
Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield observed that UCR crime statistics aren't precise when it comes to the RiverLINE.
"When we report numbers to the UCR, it goes for the whole town," Stanfield said. "The information we have (about the line) is more anecdotal than related to hard statistics."
In Riverside recently, a man reportedly used the train to get from a halfway house in Camden to brutally attack and rob a woman working at a dollar store there.
The sheriff also pointed toward an incident she witnessed in Burlington City where a man exited a train there and, a short time later, was arrested by local police for selling drugs. The $1.35 one-way fare was all that was needed to link the city with the suburbs.
"Just like with anything else, Interstate 295, Route 130, the Turnpike - they all have the potential for misuse," Stanfield said. "We're trying to be proactive."
The sheriff said that gang activity is on the rise in some towns locally and she is looking for federal funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to step up patrols in those places.
"We have seen particular instances of the RiverLINE being a conduit for gangs," Stanfield said. "We have seen crimes committed. It doesn't mean the line is inherently bad."
Sheriff Stanfield acknowledged the potential for economic growth in communities because of light rail, saying businesses and towns could flourish again because of public transport. That's not to say towns should be blind to potential dangers, she added.
In 2002, a study of the Green Line light rail system in Los Angeles by the University of California Transportation Center examined the correlation between crime and the rail line.
Researchers responsible for "Journeys to Crime: Assessing the Effects of a Light Rail Line on Crime in the Neighborhoods" concluded that the transit line running from Norwalk to Redondo Beach did not "open up new and outlying territories for exploitation by potential criminals."
The Green Line has been operational since the summer of 1995, carrying nearly 36,000 riders daily. The RiverLINE carries about one-fourth of that total.
On the Green Line, suburban neighborhoods on the western end of the line are more affluent than those inner city communities in the middle of the line. They link to middle-class, ethnically diverse neighborhoods to the east.
"Most station neighborhoods have either experienced no change or have witnessed a reduction in crime after the introduction of the Green Line," the study read. "Transit has certainly not brought more crime to the affluent suburban areas, which have continued to enjoy relatively higher levels of safety and prosperity than the county average."
Low-speed light rail doesn't exactly provide criminals with a quick get-away.
Matheussen, the DRPA CEO, said he finds it hard to believe that a criminal would stand around and wait for a train after robbing a passerby or burglarizing a home.
"It doesn't fit the kind of quick get-away I'd imagine folks who are conducting that kind of business usually rely on," Matheussen said.
Rich Amodei, senior vice president of STV, the design and engineering firm handling PATCO light rail expansion into Gloucester County, agreed that just because there's mass transit, doesn't mean there's bound to be crime.
"All the positives of what the rail line can do outweigh what little effect it may have from that kind of activity," Amodei said. "If you look at the PATCO Hi-Speedline, it runs through some of the most affluent areas in all of New Jersey." He said the existing PATCO Hi-Speedline has supported the growth of towns like Haddonfield and Collingswood. Similarly in Pennsylvania, SEPTA's R5 line rolls through one of the richest corridors in the country - the Main Line outside of Philadelphia - with a direct connection to Center City.
In Gloucester County, local police have pledged to meet any problems that might occur as a result of mass transit.
"Our department will work aggressively to deter and address any public safety concerns that might arise pertaining to light rail," said Capt. Zimmerman in Pitman. "There are always concerns when dealing with change. We will do our best to adapt to this situation and continue to provide proactive police services to our residents."
©2009 Gloucester County Times
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This article reprinted courtesy of the Gloucester County Times
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