Op-Ed: This chance to create New Jersey’s very own High Line might never come again

John J. Metro | February 22, 2021 | Opinion, Energy & Environment
Now is the time to secure financing to transform the retired Boonton train line into the Essex-Hudson Greenway. It would become one of the country’s largest urban green areas
John J. Metro

New Jersey Transit’s retired Boonton Line is being reclaimed by nature, and we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the revival of the area permanent. The nearly nine-mile stretch of railway starts in Montclair and passes through several towns before ending in Jersey City.

The last train to cross the tracks did so almost two decades ago, before the Montclair Connection opened. Since then, green shrubs and other vegetation have been renewing the abandoned, outdated infrastructure. Tree lines have inched closer to their preindustrial positions, while weeds, plants, and grass have overgrown the steel and wood rail substructure, hiding traces of the area’s former use. Especially considering the effects of the pandemic on the use of urban green space, now is the time to acquire this land, convert it into a public greenway, and create one of the country’s largest urban green areas in two of the densest counties in the nation: Essex and Hudson.

A linear park nine miles long

The Essex-Hudson Greenway concept is based on Manhattan’s High Line, emphasizing benefits for residents over tourists in creating a green oasis of shared-use bike and recreation trails. The linear park is expected to contribute to sustainable urban development and cultivate relationships with nature, health, and wellness amid an escape from hectic city life. Additionally, the creation of new foot traffic along the greenway will spur the hyperlocal economy. The project will act as a multi-town business corridor and drive local economic development for the associated municipalities. Property values of homes located near such paths often rise by 5% to 10%, which would provide another added benefit for both homeowners and the local tax base.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Essex-Hudson Greenway is how it will transform the daily commute. Greenways promote zero-emission, active transportation because of their ease of use. Since the project is calling for shared bike paths as part of its next-generation approach to environmental transit, it will help replace former commuter trains with carbon-free cycling commuter paths and create a new form of green travel for residents. With little vehicular interference, cyclists will also feel safer biking on these trails rather than on the road.

Greenways are particularly important for current and post-pandemic lifestyles since many individuals feel stressed and uneasy, and grapple for a sense of normalcy. Visits to greenways boost physical health and mental well-being. Some people seek out alone time at greenways, while others desire safely distanced time among others. Even if locals step out to read a book or eat a meal, the literal change of scenery can be hugely beneficial.

Time is of the essence

The Open Space Institute proposes the Essex-Hudson Greenway project; a nonprofit focused on protecting land by safeguarding local ecology and promoting environmentally friendly recreation in natural environments. In 2020, the institute negotiated a purchase and sale agreement with the retired line’s current landowner, Norfolk Southern. The sale of the deserted tracks cost approximately $65 million, not including the tens of millions of dollars it will take to construct and maintain the linear park. However, since the negotiated pricing is temporary, time is of the essence to secure financing. Taking too long to raise funds could result in Norfolk Southern backing out of the preliminary agreements, breaking the property up, selling it in separate parcels, and effectively eliminating the entire concept. Without a constant linear path, the greenway will not succeed. Hudson and Essex counties have both passed resolutions to support the acquisition of the land. Now federal grants, local bonding, and sponsored partnerships are required to purchase and build out the project successfully.

The Essex-Hudson Greenway’s success is a critical investment that will set a precedent for the future development of green infrastructure. An opportunity to acquire and develop such a land quantity with true public purpose might never come again. The long-term benefit of this project will significantly outlive the debt service that will make it a reality. Any other use of this land will be second-best for the public’s interest.