Housing Developers Among Biggest Backers of Light Rail Expansion

Joe Hernandez, WHYY | November 26, 2012 | More Issues
The Hudson-Bergen line has transformed the communities it touches, developers are betting an expansion will be even better for business

When a light rail line is routed through a neglected neighborhood, housing developers see an opportunity waiting to happen.

That has been the case for Hudson County since the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail first opened in northern New Jersey in 2000. Traffic on the line has grown exponentially, along with new housing, as the HBLR has expanded throughout the towns that border the Hudson River.

Indeed, municipal officials say the line has become so important to efforts to revitalize the area that some housing developers are considering investing in the light railway’s expansion.

“The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail is an American success story of how transportation innovation can turn abandoned properties into thriving communities,” says Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), a vocal champion of the HBLR.

Today the light rail network shuttles upward of 42,000 riders each day through 24 stations across Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, Union City, and North Bergen.

“But there’s more growth to be had,” says Jay DiDomenico, director of the Hudson Transportation Management Association. “They designed the HBLR well beyond what they thought the capacity would be, and we’ve blown way past that.” The HBLR can no longer accommodate its rapid rate of growth, which has led to passenger overcrowding and train and automobile traffic.

In an effort to increase capacity on the overpopulated light rail line, the Federal Transportation Administration recently gave New Jersey Transit a $400,000 grant to study three possible improvements.

One aspect of the study will be to determine the cost of those improvements. The original HBLR was paid for through a combination of state and federal funding, and the most recent grant came courtesy of the FTA.

To date, the HBLR has cost $2.2 billion. And while NJ Transit hasn’t released any estimates on the potential cost of improvements, building a light rail infrastructure can easily reach well into the tens of millions.

But federal and state budgetary belt-tightening has made the outlook gloomy for costly transit system improvements funded by taxpayer dollars.

Private Contributions

That’s where the housing developers come in. Anticipating that increased capacity on the HBLR will lead to a rush of new residents and consumers, these companies are reportedly considering pumping some of their own money into the project.

“Actually we’re talking to the [housing] developers,” says Rosemary McFadden, chief of staff to Jersey City mayor Jeremiah Healy. Because of the success of other urban development projects near HBLR lines, “some of [the housing developers] are interested in putting in their own money.”

The largest of the three potential improvements — building a new light rail station at Jersey Avenue and 18th Street in Jersey City — would have the greatest impact on housing development. Just across the Hoboken border, this intersection is home to a new 20-story condominium with more than 10,000 square feet of available retail space.

Light rail tracks already run through the neighborhood, which is seeing increased attention from developers and commercial businesses.

The second improvement would fix a “choke point” in Hoboken Terminal, where a convergence of tracks allows only a certain number of light rail cars through at a time. The study will explore the possibility of adding another track to relieve congestion.

Hoboken Terminal currently services the HBLR, nearly 10 rail lines, the PATH, several bus lines, and NY Waterway ferries.

The third improvement would ease traffic congestion on Paterson Plank Road between Hoboken and Palisade Avenue, where the HBLR runs along the street. The study will look for ways to accommodate the high volume of light rail cars while cutting down on vehicular traffic.

The HBLR has undergone expansions and refurbishments in the past, most recently the Danforth Interlocking in Bayonne, where additional tracks divert certain cars to service the “core” of the system, according to NJ Transit.

There are also plans to extend the HBLR into Tenafly or Englewood via the Northern Branch rail line, which has been cut off from passenger rail service for over 50 years. And while there are no current plans to expand across the Hudson into New York just yet, a new bus route connecting Staten Islanders to the HBLR could signal future interstate growth.