Two dozen elected Democrats from across New Jersey gathered Friday morning in Paterson to announce a new coalition that will push to bring NJ Transit trains to a rail line through Bergen and Passaic counties that has not seen passenger service since the 1960s.
An earlier effort to bring passenger trains back to the line died in 2008, at least partly due to the recession that started that year, said Congressman Bill Pascrell, D – Paterson, who led Friday’s event. This effort is separate from one to extend the Hudson Bergen Light Rail into Bergen County.
The group got together in advance of discussions scheduled for next week in Congress next week about a bill to fund transportation construction projects for the next five years, after years of political deadlock that resulted in one short-term patch after another.
“We’re going to start talking about that Monday, so now’s the time to advance any projects we feel should be part of it,” Pascrell said.
Unmentioned was the fact that some of the officeholders who spoke Friday, including Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D – Secaucus, are up for reelection on Tuesday. A poll released this week by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University found that three-quarters of New Jersey residents have no idea the election is about to happen.
“Just look at traffic on Route 23. It’s bumper-to-bumper in the middle of the day,” Pascrell said. “We need expanded mass transit options in North Jersey to take pressure off our roads.”
Pascrell did admit to one element of political calculation for his current push: The fact that New Jersey’s other largest cities — Newark, Camden and Jersey City — all received light rail lines in recent years, while Paterson and Hackensack did not.
“Newark got their stuff. Jersey City, you got your stuff. We didn’t get anything,” said Pascrell, whose district includes Paterson.
Today the New York, Susquehanna and Western rail line is used exclusively by freight trains, but traffic is light, said Michael Lysicatos, senior planner for Passaic County. The last effort to reestablish mass transit along the line ended nine years ago, Pascrell said, when NJ Transit estimated it would cost $156 million and take three years to complete.
Bringing the project back to life would require NJ Transit to re-do all the planning and environmental reviews it performed the last time, Lysicatos said. NJ Transit would build and operate the new line. No new cost estimate has been completed, Pascrell said.
The plan described Friday envisions passenger trains starting near the Hawthorne train station on NJ Transit’s Main Line, and running through Paterson to Hackensack. A second phase would bring trains south to North Bergen, where passengers could transfer to the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. The trains would be powered by diesel locomotives to save the cost of building an electric power system along the line, Lysicatos said.
A separate project would be needed to extend the light rail line north into Bergen County, ending at Englewood Hospital.
“We can’t build additional roads. We have too many people on the roads already,” Prieto said. “This project will be a huge economic engine for the entire region.”