This N.J. Transit Expansion Costs $474,000 Per Commuterby
Abandoned-track revival to gain just 130 passengers by 2030
Link key to long-promised though unfunded line to Scranton
Seven months after New Jersey Transit raised fares and cut routes to close a budget gap, the railroad is laying track to link dairy-country commuters with Manhattan, at a cost of about $474,000 per rider.
The seven-mile (11.3-kilometer) line between Port Morris and Andover in northwest New Jersey will add but a ridership blip to the nation’s second-busiest commuter railroad. By 2030, just 130 daily passengers are expected to board. One multilevel rail car could haul the whole crowd, with a dozen seats to spare.
Meanwhile, closer to Manhattan, commuters in the nation’s most densely populated suburbs endure crowding and train breakdowns at a rate four times higher than the U.S. average. The transit agency says the Sussex County line is a first step to expand rail service to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, a haven for ex-New Jerseyans seeking lower living costs. That $500 million proposal has been on the drawing board for decades without federal funding.
“I moved here in 1983 and the first thing we heard was the train is coming,” said John Moyer, 69, chairman of the governing body for Monroe County, Pennsylvania, where a high percentage of residents have one of the nation’s longest mega-commutes to New York City. “I’m not sure that I’m going to live long enough for it to get here.”
New Jersey Transit is spending $61.6 million of federal and state money to rebuild the first leg of the 28.5-mile Lackawanna Cut-Off, a freight route abandoned in the 1980s. It’s not clear whether the line ever will reach the Pennsylvania border; the $8 billion Transportation Trust Fund will run dry in June, and Republican Governor Chris Christie and Democratic legislative leaders have yet to agree on a multi-year replenishment.
“As the project stands currently, passenger rail service will go to Andover,” Jennifer Nelson, a New Jersey Transit spokeswoman, said by e-mail. “Where the project goes beyond Andover will be the subject of future discussions with the authorities in Pennsylvania.”
New Jersey’s 2015 rail-improvement plan includes no capital funding to expand station-platform capacity along the Northeast Corridor, the nation’s busiest route, or to add track connections in Hoboken, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Last year, New Jersey Transit finished environmental work to extend the Hudson-Bergen light-rail line, a project that would add 10,000 riders a day if it reaches Englewood. It also completed about a third of the design process for a track loop near New Brunswick to improve movement along the Northeast Corridor.
Nelson declined to address why the agency is spending to draw relatively few riders rather than improving busy lines. Even before it adds riders, at an expected operating cost of $2 million annually, the railroad is under financial pressure.
In October it raised fares an average 9 percent and cut some bus and rail runs to help bridge a $120 million budget gap, while data showed its trains are going fewer miles between breakdowns. Last month, it averted a strike by 4,200 unionized rail workers with a tentative contract agreement that will cost the railroad tens of millions of dollars in back pay. It’s also pledged to help the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and national rail operator Amtrak with Gateway, the $23.9 billion project that includes a replacement for the century-old Hudson River rail tunnels.
Northwestern New Jersey’s rural lifestyle beckoned to city dwellers, almost doubling Sussex County’s population in 40 years. A slump hit in 2010, though, and over five years Sussex lost 3.5 percent of its residents, the highest rate among New Jersey counties that had declines, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Neighboring Warren County, where the Lackawanna Cut-Off would approach the Delaware River to Pennsylvania, lost 1.7 percent of population.
“I grew up in Bergen County,” said George Fajvan, 52, a technology supervisor who lives in Green Township, about four miles from where the Andover station will be built. “A half-block away I could take the bus, or drive down to the PATH train, and in minutes you’d be at the World Trade Center. It’s not that I’m against trains, but where it should be put is where it gets used.”
The area, clinging to its dairy farming roots, remains so bucolic that billionaire Peter Kellogg, the retired chief executive officer of IAT Reinsurance Co., made it the setting for the Hudson Farm Club, a 3,800-acre members-only shooting preserve. The club’s own heliport, its website says, allows 13- to 18-minute access to New York City.
The railroad plans to open the Andover station just outside one of the Hudson Farm gates in October 2018. An initial ridership of 80 should reach 130 by 2030, according to New Jersey Transit meeting minutes. On March 9, the agency’s board of directors approved spending $1.4 million to offset wetlands disturbance along the project’s route.
To Blairstown resident Rich Amon, owner of a technology manufacturing business, passenger rail in his part of the state makes little sense.
“It’s so gadzooks expensive,” said Amon, 72. “I’m against people traveling two hours to work each day, no matter how they do it. The population is going down here like crazy.”
New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat from Sayreville and chairman of his house’s transportation committee, cautioned against judging the project on cost alone.
The revived line, he said, should help ease traffic on Interstate 80, prone to commuter jams between New York and Pennsylvania. Light rail in southern New Jersey, once criticized for serving a sparse population, led to development and economic growth, he said.
“I’m cautiously supportive of it, but here’s the rub,” Wisniewski said by telephone. Existing trains are running at capacity beneath the Hudson, he said, and the Gateway tunnel, if funded, is more than a decade off.
“You’re straining for capacity for all the very well-populated rail lines,” he said. “To make that work you either have to have more capacity, a new tunnel, or you have to say to some of those other rail lines: ‘We’re going to have to reduce service so others can have.’”