Explainer: Will NJ Transit Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Ever Get to Bergen County?

Meir Rinde | March 24, 2015 | Explainer, Transportation
Plans are afoot, though not necessarily in place, to establish a single-seat, 33-minute ride from Hoboken Terminal to Englewood Hospital

Credit: WNYC.org
light rail
Despite its name, NJ Transit’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail doesn’t serve Bergen County. A route to Tenafly or Englewood has been studied for years and an environmental impact study was completed in 2011, but funding has not been secured.

The train line: The 15-year-old Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line runs parallel to the Hudson River waterfront for about 21 miles, with 24 stations in Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, Union City and North Bergen (which is in Hudson County). From Hoboken Terminal, riders can access ferry, bus and rail connections to New York. The line provides more than 45,000 weekday trips, according to NJ Transit figures from last year.

The extension plan: The Northern Branch Corridor Project would extend the rail line from its current terminus at North Bergen’s Tonnelle Avenue station to Englewood Hospital, about nine miles north, adding seven new stations. The project’s cost has been estimated at $800 million to $900 million, with the federal government offering to split the cost with the state. More recent estimates have pegged the cost at closer to $1 billion.

Once completed, the extended line would provide one-seat service on electric-powered trolleys, taking 33 minutes from the Englewood Hospital station to Hoboken Terminal. The new stations would be 91st Street in North Bergen, Ridgefield, Palisades Park, Leonia, Englewood Route 4, Englewood Town Center, and Englewood Hospital. A one-way adult fare on the Hudson-Bergen line is currently $2.10 and a monthly pass is $64.

The extension would use a rail right-of-way owned by CSX Transportation and the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway. The line would continue to be used to move freight overnight when passenger trains were not operating.

Why it’s needed: U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, Sen. Cory Booker, and other supporters say the Hudson-Bergen line has brought significant residential and commercial development to Hudson County, boosted the economy in the districts it passes through, and helped relieve highway congestion. They say adding stations would create similar benefits in more areas along the Hudson River waterfront, particularly since eastern Bergen County currently has no rail lines.

In 2011, NJ Transit projected that the light-rail extension to Englewood Hospital would provide about 21,300 daily passenger trips by 2030 and service around 10,000 passengers a day. The number would be higher if trains ran until 1 a.m. instead of the expected 10:30 p.m. closing time. Annual operating and maintenance costs for a slightly shorter version of the line, extending only to Route 4, would cost $15.6 million a year and require a $9.9 million annual state subsidy.

[related]Extending the line to Tenafly, which was originally the agency’s preferred alternative, would eventually draw 11,900 passengers and furnish 1321|24,000 passenger trips a day, while taking 8,500 cars off the roads. The annual cost would be $23.5 million including a $15 million subsidy.

The project’s history: Planners contemplated a line into Bergen County in the 1990s, before the Hudson-Bergen line began operating in 2000, and later proposed using an existing stretch of railroad track that was formerly part of the defunct Erie Railroad Northern Branch, which had ended passenger service in 1966.

In 2009, then-Gov. Jon Corzine said the project would break ground two years later. An environmental impact study was completed in 2011 and public hearings were held, but the project was not funded.

NJ Transit and transportation advocates originally wanted an 11-mile extension to Tenafly, but in response to objections from borough officials and residents, the project was shortened to end in Englewood, where it has been embraced.

Last year, a new group headed by Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop was launched to advocate for the extension.

How to pay for it: Menendez has noted that the current federal transportation-funding bill expires May 31, and he urged Congress to approve new funding and a five-year spending plan. In addition, securing the required state match would likely require replenishment of New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is running low on cash. Business groups and legislators have urged Gov. Christie to approve a gas tax hike or other new revenue source to replenish the fund, but he has declined to endorse any proposals, saying the state still has $600 million in authorized borrowing still remaining.

Other potential extensions: In 2011 New Jersey Transit endorsed construction of a 0.7-mile spur from the Hudson-Bergen line’s existing West Side Avenue station in Jersey City, across Route 440 to a new Bayfront station on the Hackensack River. It would serve the city’s planned Bayfront redevelopment project. The rail extension was projected to cost at least $172 million.

A number of other possible new stations on the line have been discussed, including one on the Hoboken-Jersey City border which was being studied under a $400,000 federal grant in 2012.

A potential new station in northern Hoboken was cited as part of a secret agreement between NJ Transit and a developer that owns land in the area. The developer was a client of then-Port Authority chairman David Samson and the proposed deal was revealed as part of the Bridgegate scandal. The Christie administration allegedly threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy redevelopment funds from Hoboken if the city did not support the developer’s plans.

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