Questions Raised About NJ Transit’s Waiting Room Policy

NEWARK (AP) -

Want to sit down in NJ Transit’s main waiting area at Penn Station in Newark? You’re going to have to show your train ticket to a cop at a checkpoint first.

Passengers now have to show a valid train ticket to sit in part of the main waiting room. But civil libertarians are questioning the constitutionality of limiting access in a public place, and others have questioned whether the move is specifically designed to rid the waiting area of homeless people.

NJ Transit officials said the change enforces the agency’s two-hour time limit for sitting in station waiting rooms, which has been in effect since 2015.

“The purpose is to make sure we have seating for our ticketed customers. We are not cordoning off the entire area,” said Stephen Santoro, NJ Transit executive director. “We have seating for ticketed customers and for the public.”

NJ Transit officials said the checkpoint is a change in procedure, not in policy.

“The two-hour seating policy has been in effect for some time,” said Lisa Torbic, an NJ Transit spokeswoman. “The stanchions allow for New Jersey Transit Police officers to efficiently verify ticketed customers and enforce the seating policy.”

The new checkpoint at Newark Penn Station is not designed to exclude homeless people, but to ensure that there is enough seating for ticketed passengers, Torbic said. NJ Transit runs a homeless outreach program at Newark Penn Station.

But the new requirement may not be constitutional because the station is a public place with restaurants and shops inside, said Ed Barocas, New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union legal director.

“It is a station that invites in the public. The manner that they cut off seating to the public is inappropriate,” he said. “NJ Transit can’t show that there is no seating available for ticket holders.”

Santoro said there are benches in the station for use by the public. They’re located in the back of the waiting room behind Amtrak’s seating. But because that seating is hard to find, Barocus said the plan gives the appearance that NJ Transit is trying to keep the public out.

Previously, NJ Transit and the ACLU reached an agreement that the agency could prohibit people without tickets from being on station platforms, but areas of the station that “invite the public in” could not be regulated, Barocas said.