New Jersey Leaders are Letting Opportunity for the Greenway Project to Pass Allowing Rail Line Property to be Sold Off for Local Development
Project Represents the Best Environmentally Compatible Use of the Former Rail Property
After decades of work by New Jersey citizens, local officials, and advocacy groups, the dream of creating a nine-mile, 135-acre linear park in Northern New Jersey is coming to an end as project financing and purchase opportunities are set to expire.
After working with administrative, legislative and local officials for more than a year and developing a long-term, revenue-neutral funding plan to purchase the greenway property, New Jersey leaders are allowing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to slip-away, according to project proponents.
With the purchase contract secured with Norfolk Southern Rail Corporation set to expire, the company will soon be free to start selling off pieces of the line and the adjoining property it owns. Most at risk to being sold off separately is land at the eastern most end of the proposed linear park and in Newark – where there are already offers on the table.
The state’s inaction is also jeopardizing funding for the project, which is currently being held at the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank (I-Bank). Without a commitment from the Murphy administration, those funds are at immediate risk for being reallocated for other capital projects elsewhere in the state.
Leaders in the effort to create the Essex-Hudson Greenway, including the Open Space Institute, the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition and the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance expressed urgency that without immediate action by the Murphy administration, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the project which has been pursued for decades, will evaporate.
“Action is needed now to determine whether the Essex-Hudson Greenway is going to become reality or be allowed to die on the vine,” said Kim Elliman, president and CEO of the Open Space Institute. “While there have been many months of encouraging conversations with county and state officials and displays of high-level endorsement, deadlines are quickly approaching that must be met to save the project for the people of New Jersey.”
“Over and over, engaging with the public through more than 50 public meetings, forums and extensive local outreach, we have heard about the need for this linear park for northern New Jersey from the public, community, faith, and business leaders, and local elected officials,” said Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition. “This vast support and the availability of capital funds within the state coupled with the environmental, economic, equity
, and public health benefits of the Essex-Hudson Greenway make the state’s indecision to move ahead with the project inexplicable as it now puts the entire project at risk.”
“It is of immediate concern to the 9/11 National Memorial Trail that NJ state leaders are not fully embracing the Essex-Hudson Greenway project. The Essex Hudson Greenway is a critical non-motorized infrastructure development opportunity in two of the most densely populated and underserved counties in New Jersey,” said Thomas Baxter, President of the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance. “We believe that New Jersey is missing a significant opportunity take a leadership role to accomplish this tremendous Trail that is part of completing the 1,300-mile alignment connecting the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Virginia and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.”
In January 2020, OSI secured a time-limited purchase agreement with Norfolk Southern for the purchase of the former Boonton Line which traverses eight municipalities in Essex and Hudson Counties. Having already secured one extension to finalize the deal, time is running out to complete the purchase of the property. Under terms of the $65 million purchase agreement, the transfer needs to be completed by January 2022 – which leaves a short timeframe to complete the complicated land transfer.
Moreover, under a revenue-neutral funding plan developed with elected and other government officials, the administration’s lack of movement for the project is jeopardizing project funding. Currently, $155 million in low-interest loan funds are being held. These funds by the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank would finance $65 million for purchase and $90 million for site development. It is proposed that those loans be repaid over the next 30 years through funds from the Realty Transfer Fund (RTF) that had been used for land protection under the sunsetting Highlands Act. If the state does not act with the I-Bank by the beginning of July, the funds will be reallocated to other projects and the RTF will be absorbed into the general fund.
A conservation leader with close to 50 years of experience creating and enhancing parks, the Open Space Institute, has completed extensive investigations of the entire line, including comprehensive environmental and legal reviews. This information would allow the state to proceed with the project with full confidence of its conditions and understanding of the work it will take to bring the project to fruition.
The project has garnered support from a wide range of elected officials including New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, United States Representative Mikie Sherrill, Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, State Senator Teresa Ruiz, Mayors Michael Gonnelli (Secaucus), Michael Melham (Belleville), Michael Venezia (Bloomfield), Stuart Patrick (Glen Ridge), Sean Spiller (Montclair) and Steven Fulop (Jersey City).
The project is also supported by more than 100 local advocacy groups representing business, environmental, religious, transportation, public health, faith and civic causes. A full list of supporting organizations is available here.
For decades, local community leaders have been calling for the creation of a linear park on the former rail line property to create a safe, off-road trail to ride a bike and walk; ease traffic and offer active transportation options; create alternate commuting options; provide close-to-home, easy access to the outdoors and bring much needed greenspace to urban communities. Currently, the line creates a blight and a hazard to every town along the line, which will only worsen as pieces are carved off and others left abandoned.
Proponents also cite the expansive economic, public health, environmental and a range of other benefits, including expanded opportunities for broadband and addressing severe sewer overflow issues that have long plagued homeowners and communities along the proposed greenway.
About Open Space Institute
Founded more than four decades ago, the Open Space Institute (OSI) has partnered in the protection of 2.3 million acres across eastern North America from Quebec to Florida. Over the past 16 years, OSI has worked to protect more than 21,000 acres of New Jersey farms, forests, and local parkland within the Highlands, the Pinelands, the Bayshore, and the heavily developed northeastern suburbs. In addition to the Essex Hudson Greenway, OSI’s current projects include efforts to help protectland and improve water quality in the Delaware River Basin and provide public access to the 1,200-acre Jersey City Reservoir in Boonton and Parsippany.
About New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition
The New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition (NJBWC) is the only statewide advocacy organization for bicyclists and pedestrians and provides a collective voice for everyone who believes that a more rideable and walkable New Jersey means a more livable, equitable, and sustainable New Jersey. NJBWC officially adopted the Essex Hudson Greenway Project in 2014 and has been a leader in building the advocacy campaign to make it a reality.
About the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance
The September 11th National Memorial Trail is a 1,300-mile system of trails and roadways that links the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The route serves as a symbol of national resiliency and character and as a tribute to the fallen heroes who perished on September 11, 2001, and the many heroes who have committed themselves to the response for their country.