ROXBURY, NJ – The restoration of passenger train service on the historic Lackawanna Cutoff between Port Morris and Andover is unlikely to happen until late 2018, a year later than proponents expected.
The delay is being caused by regulatory requirements involving wetlands impacted by the project, including the construction of a new station in Andover, according to Chuck Walsh, president of the North Jersey Rail Commuter Association.
The organization favors the return of passenger trains return to the Cutoff, a famous piece of American railroading that last saw passenger trains in 1970..
Walsh said the delay was predicted by New Jersey Transit in response to his inquiry about the project. “I wrote them a letter and they responded back,” he said. “The bottom line is they plan the re-start of construction next October and two years hence for completion.”
The 7-mile extension of New Jersey Transit service from Andover to Port Morris, where it would connect with the existing tracks, has been proceeding in a piecemeal, slow fashion. In 2011 and 2012 slightly less than four miles of track was installed between Port Morris and just east of Lake Lackawanna.
Continuation westward was delayed because New Jersey Transit needed to get environmental permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the new station in Andover. The permits were conditionally granted by the DEP in March.
However, New Jersey Transit recently reviewed the fine print in those permits and told Walsh “the conditions imposed … will significantly affect the construction schedule and, therefore, the projected opening date of rail service to Andover.”
Among the stumbling blocks are requirements that New Jersey Transit buy wetlands elsewhere in the state (called securing “wetlands credits”) to offset the wetland areas impacted by the construction of Andover Station. Securing these credits could take up to ten months - and construction can’t start until they are secured - meaning New Jersey Transit is unlikely to continue construction until next October.
“There had been some reading the tea leaves in some of the information I was getting prior to this,” Walsh said. “There was some reason for concern because when the permits for the wetlands had been issued, it would seem the next step would be NJ Transit putting out the remaining contacts to bid. In fact the NJ Transit website stated they were going to do that sometime during the spring of 2015. Once we got past the start of summer that in and of itself started to raise concern.”
Work on restoring the famous rail line is also hampered by another environmental roadblock: It can’t take place between April and November due to its impact on bats nesting along the right-of-way.
“Unfortunately, it just means we are now almost three years away from seeing train service to Andover,” said Walsh.
The Lackawanna Cutoff, a turn-of-the-20th Century engineering marvel, allowed high-speed train service all the way across North Jersey into Pennsylvania. Walsh and other aficionados hope to see the entire line someday returned to service, a dream that has supporters in Northeast Pennsylvania as well.
He believes restoring service to Andover will not only help commuters living in Sussex County but will also help convince politicians and bureaucrats in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey about the viability of restoring the line all the way to Pennsylvania.