NJ Transit still plans to push forward with seven new light rail stations in Hudson and Bergen Counties, even with possible federal transportation cuts under the Donald Trump administration.
Last month, the agency unveiled a plan for new stations along a 10-mile CSX railroad right of way between North Bergen in Hudson County and Englewood Hospital in Bergen County. Details of the plan, and the location of public hearings on the environmental impact statement set for April 24 in Englewood, can be viewed at http://www.northernbranchcorridor.com.
The HBLR serves 24 stations through six Hudson municipalities, including Weehawken, Union City, North Bergen, Jersey City, Hoboken, and Bayonne. Despite having “Bergen” in its name, however, it has yet to expand into that county.
The transit agency wants to create an extension to Route 440 in Jersey City and also move west into Bergen County.
When asked at a NJ Transit Board meeting on April 4 how federal budget cuts might affect expansion efforts for the Hudson Bergen-Light Rail, Executive Director Steven Santoro said he imagines the program going forward no matter what the cuts.
“We always need to take the long view,” Santoro said. “The future holds, hopefully, that New Jersey Transit is going to need to grow and meet demand throughout the region. What we’ll continue to do is move projects like the Hudson Bergen-Light Rail moving into Bergen County, because someday there will be money available, because there will be a need for us to move more people in this region.” Officials at the meeting did not provide a timeline for how long the extensions will take to complete.
According to NJ Transit, the light rail system now serves 51,867 riders daily. The Northern Branch extension would add an estimated 12,370 riders to that number by 2030.
Last year, Gov. Christopher Christie signed legislation raising the state gas tax by 23 cents per gallon. It is part of an eight-year, $16 billion agreement to fund the state’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF)for public road and rail infrastructure.
On March 27, Christie also signed a bill giving the TTF immediate access to $400 million in appropriations for various projects. Some $140 million of that is reserved for NJ Transit. The agency has listed the completion of the environmental impact statement and preliminary engineering for the Northern Branch extension among its $60 million System Expansion initiatives.
It will also steer part of its $62.7 million allocation for Bus/Light Rail Improvements towards preliminary engineering and final design for the Route 440 extension of the light rail system further south in Jersey City.
According to the environmental impact statement, the Northern Branch extension would “improve mobility within Hudson and Bergen Counties, alleviate some traffic congestion, and support continued economic growth.”
The extension would also assist low-income and minority transit riders in commuting to regional jobs, as well as job centers in the Meadowlands, Hudson River waterfront area, and New York City.
But with an estimated $1.3 billion cost to complete the Northern Branch extension, and an estimated $225 million for the Route 440 extension, the unknown factor remains Trump.
The administration’s proposed “America First” budget limits funding for the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program to projects that already have funding agreements in place. NJ Transit has yet to strike such an agreement.
As the New Starts program has around $2 billion in funding for transportation projects nationwide, the TTF would likely have to bear the remaining cost for the extensions should Trump’s proposal pass.
Local officials respond
Suzanne Mack, chair of NJ Transit’s North Jersey Advisory Committee, noted the apparent contradiction in Trump’s talks of strengthening American infrastructure, while simultaneously refocusing the budget on defense spending.
“I was under the impression that President Trump ran as part of the TriState region – he’s a New York guy – that he was very much in favor of rail projects,” Mack said. “So the two actions are sort of out of sync. To have the budget cuts for projects, then say that you want to have a robust economy, maybe they haven’t pulled it together yet.”
However, Mack, like Santoro, was positive that things will change for the better. Giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, she said, “So much has happened so fast with the new president. I guess we’re still in the first 100 days. When you first take over government, perhaps there’s so much to do that you don’t really understand.”
But, without the federal assistance, Mack warned that the extensions “can’t happen. Environmental approvals and all that stuff are one thing. You can’t build unless you have the [federal] money.”
Area officials respond
“To cut off the flow of money is incredibly shortsighted,” said Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, on Trump’s planned cuts to the New Starts program. “Investments in trains are paid back at a wide ratio. To not do that is just dumb.”
DeGise also broke down how the potential stop in funding would affect the Route 440 extension in Jersey City, which would bring the light rail’s West Side Branch 1/3 of a mile west to the Hackensack Riverfront. There, it would connect to the proposed, mixed-use Bayfront development. That development would include new housing, retail, office space, and parkland.
“Investments in trains are paid back at a wide ratio. To not do that is just dumb.” – Tom DeGise
“There are 96 acres of development there,” DeGise said. The site has also been zoned for 4,100 units of residential and commercial space. But if the extension were to happen, that number would be able to accommodate double the amount, at least 8,200 zoned units, according to the executive.
“This is what they call, ‘The Thin Budget,’” said U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, at a recent day care opening in Weehawken. “It’s ridiculous, it cuts here and there. I’m very concerned about the light rail; this is something that moves people around the city. We’ve been working on the light rail for years and years. The extension to Bergen County is only the next natural step for the light rail.”
Sires has advanced money from the New Starts program for previous light rail extensions. He said that some sections could be built without the federal money. “We’ll have some state money that will be funded into this project.” But he expressed doubts about finishing both extensions without Washington’s help. In the end though, Sires said he and his colleagues are fighting for the federal dollars.
“Trump gives us a budget, and we determine what’s in the budget – the Congress and the Senate.”
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, at the same day care event, admitted that the cuts would make the extensions “almost impossible. New Starts is the major funder for the extension to the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. That’s why I have said, from my perspective, that [Trump’s] budget is dead on arrival. We’re just going to have a budget fight on our hands in Congress. We’re going to look to get a lot of support in Congress from different parts of the country who also what to see their transportation projects happen, and say, ‘This doesn’t make economic sense.’ This is a fight we’re going to lead.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org