When completed by 2010, the rail system will run from Bayonne through Weehawken, Union City, West New York and North Bergen and into Bergen County. Presently, it runs from Bayonne through Jersey City, and should extend to Hoboken later this year.
Speaking Tuesday at a press conference at the mouth of the old Conrail tunnel along the Weehawken waterfront, State Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, also the mayor of West New York, announced the reformation of a five-member Light Rail Transit Panel, selecting former State Assembly Speaker Joseph Doria, who is also the mayor of Bayonne, to serve as the panel's new chairman.
Sires said that the new panel will have five assemblymen, instead of the prior three-member panel, and would include legislators from all over New Jersey, as light rail systems are being considered throughout the state. The former panel consisted of only three legislators, including Doria.
"If New Jersey is to have a healthy economy throughout the 21st century, then it will need a mass transit system that is second to none," Sires said. "This expanded legislative panel is charge with the mission of seeing to it that the planning, financing and construction of the light rail system continues to move forward without any disruption or delay."
"Light Rail is not only important to Hudson County, but it's important to every member of the state," Sires said. "It has generated construction jobs. New waves of investments along the waterfront can be linked to the Light Rail. It is the future of the area and it is important that a Hudson County legislator is at the lead of the project. I know that Assemblyman Doria will work tirelessly to make this project a reality."
The press conference was held at the site that will eventually link the Weehawken waterfront to Union City and West New York, as the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail will eventually veer away from the waterfront toward the northern part of Hudson County.
Sires believes that the proposed Light Rail stop at 49th Street and Bergenline Avenue will become the busiest station along the Light Rail system.
It is believed that the next phase of the Light Rail (Hoboken and Weehawken) will be ready for public use by the middle of 2003, with the extension into Union City and West New York coming by 2005.
Doria said that the funding for the second phase of the proposed $1.4 billion project has been secured already, so there should be no delays in the construction. However, legislators still need to collect an approximate additional $400 million to complete the system through North Bergen, as well as continuing the project from 22nd Street in Bayonne to the foot of Bayonne.
"We recognize the need for more federal funding and that will be the role of the panel to insure that the project will be completed," Doria said. "The panel will definitely serve the purposes of the people of New Jersey. This project will be completed. We've come so far over the last 15 years not to see it completed. NJ Transit and 21st Century Rail [the construction firm hired to build the system] have done a great job in seeing that the project move ahead of schedule."
Doria said that since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, more commuters have been using the Light rail system.
"The first two years, we were hoping to get 10,000 riders per day," Doria said. "For the first few months, the Light rail handled about 7,800 per day, but after Sept. 11, we've been getting about 13,000 per day, with a peak of 17,500 riders. But we're over the initial estimates. Once the Light rail hits Hoboken and the PATH station there, those numbers will certainly go up."
Sires also announced that the two Democratic assemblymen that will also serve on the panel are Paul Sarlo of Woodbridge and Jack Conners of Camden.
Currently, a 34-mile stretch of light rail linking Camden with Trenton is also under construction. There have been initial talks to build light rail systems in Essex and Union counties, linking Newark with Elizabeth, as well as a possibility of extending the Hudson-Bergen system into northern Bergen County using the NJ Transit's existing Northern line.
Entire state watching
Sires said that he will ask Assembly Minority Leader Paul DiGaetano to submit the names of two Republican legislators to serve on the panel.
"We needed to extend the panel to include the entire state, because light rail is definitely the future in other parts of the state as well," Sires said. "Light rail adds to the economy of the region and it's a guarantee that property values will continue to go up."
Doria said that property values in Bayonne have gone up 25 percent since the installation of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail two years ago.
State Senators Bernard Kenny and Nicholas Sacco, the latter of whom is also the mayor of North Bergen, were also on hand for the announcement of the new panel. Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and Guttenberg Mayor David Delle Donna were also in attendance.
"We needed to get a plan that was feasible," said Sacco, who serves on the state senate's transportation committee. "We stayed strong and didn't budge on what we wanted. Very soon, we'll see the light rail coming through the entire county."
"This has been a 15-year struggle," Kenny said. "I remember when I was young, that getting to the waterfront was just unimaginable. There were so many people who were against the idea of light rail. But with the formation of this panel, we're going to see that it becomes a full reality."
Turner also recalled the numerous road blocks along the way. "There were many, many doubting Thomases over the last 15 years, whether it would ever go through," Turner said. "It is truly to the credit of the people here that insured that the funding was there. There were numerous road blocks, but every road block was surmounted and now we're really going to see this light rail system completed."
Although the panel can only make recommendations without any legal authority, having a unified panel can only help to secure the necessary funding to complete the project.
"This important group serves as a watchdog over projects as well as a strong promoter of light rail in New Jersey," Doria said. "The panel plays an important role in assuring that the requisite amount of resources is applied to bring about further light rail commuter systems in the Garden State."