Business & Finance

Raritan Valley Rail Coalition Presses for Funding for ‘One-Seat Ride’ Study

The Raritan Valley Rail Coalition met Monday in Westfield. Credits: Jackie Lieberman
Raritan Valley Rail Coalition Chairman Peter Palmer outlines the group's goals. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
Assemblyman Jamel Holley addresses the coalition. Credits: Bob Faszczewski

WESTFIELD, NJ — The Raritan Valley Rail Coalition’s efforts to fund a study the group hopes will lead to expanded “one-seat ride” train service along the line into Manhattan received a boost on Monday as an assemblyman who represents two of the 18 communities along the Raritan Valley Line corridor, which services Central New Jersey, pledged his support. Westfield is a major stop along the line.

Assemblyman Jamal C. Holley of Roselle, who represents the 20th Legislative District, which includes Elizabeth, Hillside, Roselle and Union, spoke at the coalition’s monthly meeting in Westfield. Roselle and Union are on the line.

According to Somerset County Freeholder Peter S. Palmer, who chairs the group, they are focusing on increasing “one-seat ride” service into Manhattan beyond the current daily mid-day and evening service on the line. NJ Transit passengers in the communities currently served by the line, when travelling into New York City outside the few times now designated for a single ride, must change trains in Newark to get into Manhattan.

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According to Martin E. Robins, former director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University and Union County’s representative to the coalition’s board of trustees, the group’s first order of business is to “fill out” weekday “one-stop ride” service with another early morning train, leaving Plainfield about 8 a.m. and Westfield at 8:30 a.m. and other trains leaving New York City at 4 and 8 p.m.

The group’s next priority will be to press for weekend “one-stop-ride” service.

One of the challenges, Robins noted, is that there currently only are 19 “slots” for trains entering New York and the legislature does not want to take slots away from current lines going directly into the rail tunnels in order to accommodate Raritan Valley trains.

The study, estimated to cost about $1 million, would be needed to convince New Jersey lawmakers and New Jersey Transit of the economic advantages and feasibility of expanded Raritan Valley service.

Robins pointed out that the expanded direct service into Manhattan would bring increased numbers of residents and increased property values into communities such as Westfield, as it has for Summit, which already has direct service.

Holley said his fellow 20th District legislators, Senator Raymond J. Lesniak and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, already have signed a letter in support of the study and support also has been received by Senator Thomas Kean, Jr. and Jon Bramnick of the 21 District, which includes Westfield.

It also was pointed out at the meeting that Assemblymen Gerald Green, MIchael Dougherty and Jack Ciatterrelli support the study.

Robins said once the precise parameters of the expanded service proposal are pointed out to the state in the initial study the next step would be obtaining the estimated $3 million to $4 million needed to implement the changes.

One of the challenges, audience members noted, is providing parking at the local stations for the increased number of rail travelers who would use the increased train service.

It was suggested that New Jersey grants for the development of central business districts and Urban Enterprise Zones might help meet some of the costs.

Holley said he wasn’t aware of the use of those funds specifically for developments related to the expansion of “one-seat-ride” rail service.

One audience member, noting that Plainfield appeared to be a “weak link” in the system, suggested that the counties and state should be pressed to finance a parking authority for that city in order to encourage economic development there.

Audience member Bill Nierstead noted that the Queen City recently approved a 212-unit apartment complex as part of its Transit Village plan.

Nierstead, a Garwood resident, also pressed for more service to Garwood, where only five Raritan Valley trains currently stop all day.

Another, more long-term, goal of the coalition, Palmer noted, is addition of another railroad tunnel into Manhattan because the current two tunnels leading into New York City are reaching capacity.

He estimated the proposed new Gateway Tunnel project would take another 10 years before it is completed and the rehabilitation of the current tunnels to better serve New Jersey riders would take additional four years. The cost for those projects would be about $10 billion, Palmer said.

Additionally, the replacement of two portal bridges along New Jersey Transit lines would cost about $1 billion and the upgrading of New York’s Pennsylvania Station would cost about $10 billion, he added.

It was noted that both New Jersey United States Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker have been pressing hard to keep the Gateway Tunnel project moving.

A member of the audience said a more immediate solution to the Raritan Valley problem might be enabling Raritan Valley trains to come into Newark Pennsylvania Station at the same level as Northeast Corridor and other trains bound for Manhattan so that passengers transferring to New York City trains would not have to rush downstairs to catch Manhattan-bound trains.

Palmer replied the coalition had suggested a “pocket track” at Harrison Yards near Newark a few years ago but Amtrak had opposed that proposal.

He said the group might again explore it.

Additionally, the chairman said, the group had written a letter of support for including the Hunter Flyover in the Action Alternatives for NEC Futures Study.

The Hunter Flyover would avoid the situation where Raritan Valley eastbound trains have to wait as Northeast Corridor eastbound trains pass because they currently are using some of the same track space.

In response to another question, Robins said some “outdated” trains had been running through the corridor recently because the older bi-level train had trouble communicating with the newer bi-level trains. He noted the older trains had been sent to Westchester County for updating to correct the communications problems.

On the possibility of a NJ Transit railroad strike on March 13, Palmer said negotiations had been ongoing and the outlook currently was optimistic that a strike could be avoided.

He added that New Jersey Transit currently moves 105,000 passengers into and out of New York City and it expected it would be able to accommodate the estimated 40,000 additional passengers should a strike occur.

The chairman advised rail passengers, in the event of a strike, to work from home if possible and, if not, to get to a major bus stop to board buses because it was expected crowded buses might surpass minor stops.

He distributed a multi-page strike contingency press release and urged passengers to refer to on their smartphones or telephone 973-275-5555 for information.

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