A renewed state Transportation Trust Fund has reignited the planning process for the proposed light rail in eastern Bergen County, a $1.3 billion project that local officials say will ease traffic congestion and stimulate economic growth.
After a long period of delay, last month officials from New Jersey Transit released a draft of the latest revised plan for the proposed 10-mile extension of the Hudson-Bergen Line, which now ends in North Bergen. NJ Transit is in the midst of a 60-day public comment period on the latest plans, which would take the line up to Englewood, where two public hearings were held yesterday.
The hearings came just weeks after Gov. Chris Christie worked with lawmakers in Trenton to enact a $400 million supplemental appropriation for transportation projects from the TTF, which last year was renewed for another eight years thanks to a 23-cent gas-tax hike that went into effect in November. The supplemental appropriation includes $5 million to complete the project’s environmental-impact statement, which is a necessary precursor to beginning engineering work and eventually construction. Under the current plans, the extended line would open in 2029.
The light-rail hearings also came as a rash of infrastructure problems have been disrupting commutes into New York City in recent weeks, including two derailments at Penn Station in New York, which is owned by Amtrak. Under the planned light-rail extension, commuters in Bergen County would gain new rail access to connections to New York City via the existing section of the Hudson-Bergen Line, including ferry service and the Port Authority’s PATH trains.
Running along Hudson River
The existing 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 actually in Hudson County). The line provides more than 45,000 weekday trips, according to recent NJ Transit estimates.
The planned extension, known as the Northern Branch Corridor Project, is expected to generate another 24,740 daily trips. The electrified line would stop at seven new stations in five different municipalities before ending at Englewood Hospital. Other stops would be in North Bergen, Ridgefield, Palisades Park, and Leonia.
NJ Transit and transportation advocates originally sought to extend the line to a new terminus in Tenafly, but borough officials and residents there objected to that proposal and the project was eventually shortened to end in Englewood. The new draft plans for the extension calls for three stops in Englewood, including one at Route 4, a key east-west roadway.
Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle was among those who offered comments during the public hearings, which were held at the Crowne Plaza Englewood Hotel. He praised officials from NJ Transit for working with the city’s engineers to address concerns about parking. Huttle also predicted the light-rail expansion would eventually become an “economic engine” for the region.
“Public transportation, including buses and trains, is a need in the state of New Jersey,” Huttle said. “New Jersey needs the public transportation to address not just Englewood, not just Bergen County, but this entire economic region.”
Bergen County Executive James Tedesco also spoke in support of the project, saying in addition to economic benefits, the rail line would also have environmental benefits for the region by “taking cars off the road.”
The hearings also drew several state lawmakers, who all spoke in support of the long-planned rail extension, citing potential benefits that ranged from improving access for young people interested in nightlife in places like Hoboken and Jersey City to making it easier for senior citizens to travel around the region.
“We have no rail access, we have no alternatives,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “It’s bus transportation, period.”
“It’s an absolute no-brainer,” said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen).
Speaking for the opposition
But not everyone who testified yesterday was in favor of the project in its current form. Englewood Councilman Eugene Skurnick questioned whether it made sense to bring the line into downtown Englewood, suggesting it could end in Leonia at Bergen County’s Overpeck Park instead. Others raised concerns about pedestrian access from city streets that currently lack sidewalks.
“It’s not the right thing for Englewood,” Skurnick said. “It doesn’t make economic sense. Who’s going to come here?”
Earlier projections estimated the light-rail expansion could generate as much $3 billion in economic activity for the region, and proponents of the eight-year, $16 billion renewal of the TTF that was enacted by Christie and lawmakers last year regularly pointed to the languishing extension plans as a reason to reauthorize the trust fund. Weinberg said yesterday that the TTF renewal is now providing a stable source of state revenue for the project, including the $5 million just appropriated to finish the environmental-impact study.
Officials had also been hoping that as much as half of the cost of the project could be covered by the federal government through the New Starts program. But an initial budget blueprint released last month by President Donald Trump called for that program, going forward, to provide federal funding only to projects where the full funding has already been approved. The same federal budget proposal, which now goes to the Congress for review, has also thrown into question the federal funding for the planned Gateway trans-Hudson tunnel project.
More information about the current draft of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail extension plan is available at http://northernbranchcorridor.com/. NJ Transit will collect comments on the draft of the plan until May 23. Comments can be submitted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by sending them to Linda A. Mosch, P.E., Project Director, Northern Branch Corridor EIS, NJ TRANSIT Capital Planning & Programs, One Penn Plaza East, Newark, NJ 07105.