Newark Star-Ledger, 12-06-02
Rail and car advocates vie for Jersey City route
by Joe Malinconico (Star-Ledger staff)
Overgrown with weeds, the mile-long abandoned rail tunnel known as the Bergen Arches cuts deep through the beginnings of the Palisades in Jersey City.
But the desolate passageway leads to paydirt - Jersey City's booming downtown, where highrise offices are springing up along the waterfront amid new luxury homes. For two decades, transportation planners and government officials have wanted to build a highway through the Bergen Arches, connecting the waterfront to Route 1&9 and the New Jersey Turnpike's main roadway.
But the new administration at city hall and at the Statehouse disagree with their predecessors' positions on the Bergen Arches. Instead, they are backing plans to open a new light rail line there, which would link downtown Jersey City to the huge new train station being built in Secaucus.
The shift in thinking on the Bergen Arches reflects the growing support that rail systems have gained in the struggle in New Jersey between trains and cars for limited transportation funding. Amid heightened concerns about sprawl, state officials are more reluctant to build new highways.
"A roadway (at the Bergen Arches) doesn't pass our smart growth criteria," said state Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox. "Some form of mass transit is the way to go."
A preliminary Transportation Department report, on which the state held a public hearing recently, says building a road through the Bergen Arches would be as desirable an option as putting a passenger rail service there. The final study is due in December and probably will reflect Fox's stronger stand in support of mass transit, officials said.
But funding constraints make it unlikely that anything will be built through the Bergen Arches in the next few years. The price for a new road would start around $100 million, officials said, while the cost of a rail line would be hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
Until the state has the money for a full-scale transportation link through the area, Fox said he would like to take the interim step of creating an inexpensive walkway or bicycle path.
In the meantime, advocates for rail and road projects are eager to stake their claims to the Bergen Arches before decisions are made.
"Once you pave it for highway, you're never going to get it back for rail," said Janine Bauer, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a watchdog group that generally opposes the construction of new highways.
"Given what Jersey City has to offer, given its renaissance, it would be a detriment if they didn't provide some sort of car access through there," said Steve Carrellas, New Jersey coordinator for the National Motorists Association.
"The train alone isn't going to do it," he said.
Advocates of building a new passenger rail line through the Bergen Arches say trains would be the best way to get commuters to Jersey City's thriving business district without creating horrendous congestion on local streets.
"I think the consensus of the people who live in the community is that there should be some sort of light rail," said Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham. "There are a lot of residents who are worried that a new road will bring more traffic into their neighborhoods."
But Bret Schundler, who was Jersey City's mayor before his unsuccessfull run for governor last year, maintains that city residents would benefit from a new road. He pointed out that the main roads to downtown Jersey City - the New Jersey Turnpike extension and the so-called sunken highway of Route 139 - already are chronically congested, partly because of drivers heading for the Holland Tunnel.
Joe Malinconico covers transportation. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (973)392-4230.