Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bergen County, N.J. reps seek LRT

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Support for actually extending Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (HBLR) into Bergen County, N.J., simmering for more than a decade, appears to be ratcheting up, coincidentally as New Jersey Transit's new executive director, Veronique "Ronnie" Hakim, takes charge.

A bipartisan group of Bergen County elected officials, business owners, and rail advocates led by the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) testified Monday, March 17, 2014, before the state Transportation Committee in Trenton, the state capital, arguing for HBLR, which first opened in March 2000, to grow north beyond Hudson County.

"It is time for the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail to live up to its name," state Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D) said. Johnson, whose district includes Englewood, N.J., has been an ardent supporter of an LRT extension north from the current terminus in North Bergen (Hudson County) to at least Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.

Plans were to extend the line north of Englewood to Tenafly, N.J., but Tenafly officials and anti-rail partisans have scuttled that portion of the plan for the time being, even as municipalities north of Tenafly began to look into an even longer LRT line.

Bergen County is New Jersey's most populous county, with an estimated 2012 population of about 919,000. Hudson County, estimated 2012 population of 652,000, is the state's most densely populated county.

Numerous NJ Transit capital expansion plans have been nearly at a standstill since Gov. Chris Christie became governor in 2010, particularly in northern New Jersey. The Garden State has declined to seek New Starts or other federal funding for many projects, including the estimated $900 million HBLR extension, despite the significant bipartisan support.

NJ Transit now reportedly plans to submit an amended draft environmental impact statement in late autumn following a 45-day public comment period on the project.

Asked by Railway Age for comment, NJ-ARP Vice President Phil Craig observed, "During the seven years that this process has taken to date, other light rail transit projects have gone from conception to ribbon cutting." He added, "Hopefully, an FEIS and ROD permitting New Jersey Transit to qualify this sorely needed project for federal assistance and advance it into final engineering followed by the beginning of construction will occur before the end of this decade."

Englewood Hospital CEO Warren Geller told state legislators and local media his facility will welcome LRT and provide space for a stop there. "Today the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail is incomplete, and it's a vision unfulfilled in our eyes," he said. "It's 12 short miles of rail that will go a long way in giving our community the access to quality health care, as well as serving as an economic stimulus for the city of Englewood and an essential link for its future prosperity."

Former Assemblywoman Rose Heck, a key longtime LRT supporter and also a current representative of NJ-ARP, noted HBLR currently handles 47,500 riders per weekday. HBLR currently stretches 21 miles, all in Hudson County.

Unrelated efforts by Staten Island, N.Y. officials are also ongoing, though somewhat fitful, to extend HBLR across the Bayonne Bridge, spanning the Kill Van Kull, into Staten Island itself. The borough's efforts have been largely ignored by New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), though MTA now does provide an express bus service from Staten Island to Manhattan which includes a scheduled stop at HBLR in Bayonne, N.J.