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Post-Sandy commuting pains ease slightly for New Jersey riders

By Melanie Hicken and Janet Roberts

MAPLEWOOD/HOBOKEN, New Jersey (Reuters) - Getting into New York City was expected to be a little easier for some New Jersey commuters on Wednesday with the reopening of the Holland Tunnel for the first time since it was shut after being flooded by Superstorm Sandy.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced late Tuesday that the tunnel connecting the two states under the Hudson River will reopen to all commuter traffic starting at 5 a.m. On an average weekday, an estimated 91,000 vehicles use the Holland Tunnel to commute between New York and New Jersey, Christie said on his website.

Commuter hassles tied to Sandy's devastation of railways and river crossings eased slightly on Tuesday, with the restoration of limited rail service into New York and added buses for train riders whose lines were washed out.

Nerves remained raw, however, as travel times were stretched by traffic jams and overcrowded transit station platforms and some tunnels into New York flooded by the massive storm remained closed.

Resuming limited service for the first time since the storm, the PATH train carried about 23,000 commuters from Jersey City's Journal Square into Manhattan during the morning rush. PATH officials had no word on when more service would resume.

Tunnels into New York City that remain closed indefinitely to suburban commuters include two of the four East Harlem River tunnels, limiting Long Island Rail Road service and one of the two Hudson River tunnels used by NJ Transit.

NJ Transit trains were jammed as a result.

"People were left on the platform," said Josh Crandall, whose Clever Commute web service runs service disruption alerts. "People just can't get on. And people are frustrated."

Many NJ Transit rail riders whose lines were disabled by the storm chose to ride buses instead, and the influx in road traffic caused epic congestion in Hoboken on the only route to the Lincoln Tunnel.

"You get to Hoboken and then you are buying your way into one of the worst traffic jams you've ever seen," Crandall said.

After a Monday crush of displaced rail riders boarding buses, NJ Transit ramped up the number of buses deployed on Tuesday. In South Orange, New Jersey, where one bus showed up on Monday, four showed up on Tuesday for a similar crowd of 100 people lined up by 5:30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. departure.

Those riders typically use NJ Transit's "Midtown Direct" train line, a 35-minute straight shot into New York's Pennsylvania Station - and residents of South Orange and neighboring Maplewood pay a real estate premium for the easy train access to Manhattan.

Tempers flared as frustrated commuters turned to their suburban town mayors for help, and some felt their pleas were rebuffed.

Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca - a seven-time town mayor who rides Midtown Direct himself to his job in New York City - vowed to seek a travel solution because commuting is a vital part of town life.

"We have such a high level of commuters here. It's imperative that we try to think outside the box and try to figure out something," DeLuca said.

He arranged for town jitneys to transport commuters to neighboring Irvington, where every eight minutes they can board a NJ Transit bus that can connect them with train service into New York City's Penn Station.

His counterpart in South Orange, Alex Torpey, a 25-year-old grad school student serving his first term in elective office, struck a different tone when town residents began asking him on Facebook how the town would help commuters get to work.

"The Village, and myself, one unpaid elected official, cannot solve every single problem you have," wrote Torpey, the village's youngest mayor ever.

Torpey, whose remarks drew criticism on a local message board, later said his words had been misinterpreted and that he had intended to set realistic expectations for residents. Torpey said he pressed NJ Transit to add more buses for displaced rail riders.

"We will provide help to find a solution, but we really need NJ Transit to step up," he said Tuesday. "I think sometimes people expect us to solve every problem instantly, that we have unlimited resources. Again, this is NJ Transit's responsibility."

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Todd Eastham and Lisa Shumaker)

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