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Atlantic City jitneys mark 100 years

Atlantic City jitneys mark 100 years

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Every jitney driver has a story. Lots of them.

But the best ones aren’t for publication.

“You can’t print that in the paper,” says Dennis E. Fitzgerald, as another colorful story is shared among a group of veteran jitney owners.

In his 36 years — and four jitney numbers — Lou Wright has had three pregnant women’s water break.

Nothing shakes these drivers, though. After all, the key to the small buses’ success has been the ability to adapt.

And the service has been doing that for 100 years, which Mayor Don Guardian honored Monday — the actual anniversary — by taking a jitney to work.

“I think we should be very proud we still have private enterprise,” he said. “It’s certainly very unique to Atlantic City.”

Guardian noted that, in any other city, public money funds public transportation. But the jitneys don’t cost the city anything.

On Friday, it will cost paying riders less, as the original fare — the nickel from which the small buses get their names — will be charged from 1 to 6 p.m.

A lot has changed in the century since a trolley strike sparked two men to pick up riders in their Ford Model Ts, rigged with a pulley system to open the door without getting out of the driver’s seat.

The now-uniform 13-passenger buses equipped with wheelchair lifts have evacuated residents in near-hurricane conditions, helped transport those displaced by gas leaks or fires, and even taken voters to the polls.

“Our flexibility is one of the strongest points that allowed us to go 100 years,” said Bill Penman, a 28-year driver and former association president. “We keep evolving.”

Gas prices too high? No problem.

The 190 driver-owned buses now run on compressed natural gas.

“If it weren’t for natural gas, we wouldn’t still be able to be in business,” Penman said.

While diesel fuel was about $2.69 per gallon recently in Atlantic and Cape May counties, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge, jitney drivers pay about two-thirds of that to fuel up at the natural gas pumps a their facility on Delilah Road in Egg Harbor Township. The drivers also get a federal rebate on each gallon, explained Jitney Association President Tom Woodruff.

The move a few years ago also took the headquarters out of Atlantic City. But it didn’t lessen their enthusiasm for the city where the service was born.

“I like to throw the locals some business,” said Gus Moumas, as he drove his No. 27 jitney past Gardner’s Basin.

An Atlantic City native, he can point out where things used to be, and where the best places to eat or shop are now.

He also knows the people.

“We have a lady running, so we’ll wait for her,” he said as he began the trip back from Jackson Avenue — the last street on the route — toward the casinos.

“She’s a regular,” he says as the blond woman runs into view.

Without a car, this is how the casino worker — who didn’t want to give her name — gets to work.

“Thank you for waiting,” she says, slightly out of breath.

After handing over her fare, she begins opening windows: “I’m sorry, but I’m hot.”

“I’ll leave the door open for you, dear,” Moumas replies.

Miss a bus, and you may be waiting a half-hour to 45 minutes.

“But see when the next jitney is?” Moumas says, pointing to a bus about two blocks ahead.

Victor Vispetto isn’t even sure how often he rides the jitney. But he knows he spends about $45 each month — and that’s using the 75 cent senior discount tickets.

Cynthia Mason has been living in the city since 1969, when she was 13. She rides the jitneys often. On this day, she’s heading to pay bills.

Moumas is one of the best drivers, she says.

“He’s a good guy,” says Roscoe Brown, who is in a wheelchair. “He takes care of his people.”

Some pass those in wheelchairs, he says.

“That’s why I’m here,” Moumas replies.

Jitney service began in 1915, when Frank Fairbairn and S.W. Redmond started picking up riders. Within a few months, there were nearly 500 different vehicles operating as jitneys on the city streets.

The trolleys would return, but wouldn’t last. By 1918, the Atlantic City and Shore Railroad Company declared bankruptcy. A year earlier, the jitneys were forced off Atlantic Avenue and onto Pacific, where they still ride.

“You take me off Pacific Avenue, I’m lost,” said Fitzgerald, who started driving May 1, 1976, along with his brother, Eddie.

That roadway holds a love-hate relationship for the drivers, who have long complained of the bumpy ride along the stretch.

The last time it was paved, Penman said, was 1987 — the year he came on.

The recent repaving will save drivers a lot of money in repairs, they say.

But like Pacific Avenue, the buses’ ride through history hasn’t always been a smooth one.

There was a former jitney president who faced accusations of theft. Free shuttles for Trump casinos that led to a short cabbie boycott of those casinos in 1998. And the battles as drivers competed for fares.

“Pacific Avenue cowboys,” says Moumas. “I’ve heard stories.”

That’s no longer the case. Jitney drivers have learned they are better as a team. In fact, in lean times, Moumas said, drivers will share the few customers out waiting for rides. It’s especially important for those still paying off their franchises, which can cost about $180,000.

“That cowboy attitude didn’t help anyone,” Moumas said.

Drivers won’t say how much they make doing their jobs, which some use to supplement incomes, while others use it as a retirement job.

Wright said he started businesses while making money driving.

“If I want to park the bus and go to Greece for six months, I can,” Moumas said. “When I come back, I turn the key and I’m back in business.”

“I got to go to every one of my kids’ events,” Eddie Fitzgerald said.

That’s what brought Vicki Piperato into the fold.

She was working at Resorts 15 years ago, when she realized she could never get a weekend or holiday off — and forget about trying to get to her son’s games.

She bought a bus. It’s a perfect fit for her outgoing personality and love of this city.

One of about eight women currently riding, Piperato works two shifts, after taking over her husband’s franchise when he had a stroke.

He has regained most of his abilities, but lingering problems with his peripheral vision and speech have kept him off the road.

So his wife keeps driving, keeping up the only jitney system in the country that has lasted continuously for a century.

As the jitneys have survived, so will Atlantic City, Moumas predicts.

“We’ve seen bad,” he said. “We’ll see good again. One thing about people in Atlantic City, they can live off a rock if they have to.”

Contact: 609-272-7257

@LyndaCohen on Twitter

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