By Jaimie Julia Winters
The Open Space Institute has reached a preliminary sale agreement with Norfolk Southern Railway Co. for property in Essex and Hudson counties for the creation of a nine-mile linear park running through Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny, Secaucus and Jersey City.
“This agreement represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to acquire property that can become a working green space for the people of (Hudson and Essex counties),” said Kim Elliman, of the institute.
Residents of communities along the property have been campaigning for a linear park that would serve as a “shared-use path” for walking, bicycling and running. Groups including Bike&Walk Montclair, Bloomfield Open Space Trust Fund, the Friends of the Ice & Iron Trail and others in North Newark, Jersey City and Hoboken have long advocated for the greenway.
On June 19, Norfolk Southern filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that oversees economic issues related to ground transportation, seeking to abandon the line and transfer ownership to the Open Space Institute, at a price of $65 million.
On July 30, the institute announced that it reached a preliminary agreement with Norfolk Southern, which has owned the line since 1999. NJ Transit ended passenger rail service on the line in 2002 with the opening of the Montclair Connection near the present-day Bay Street Station.
The agreement marks another step in the creation of the park, a long-held vision of all the communities along the route. However, institute officials said many steps lie ahead, including securing federal approval, environmental and engineering reviews and financing. Looking ahead, community engagement and outreach will be key as the project progresses, institute officials said.
“This linear park has been a working project for our organization since 2014, and we offer our thanks to the many partners over the years who have all helped make this announcement and substantial step possible,” said Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition and a Montclair resident.
“While this is only the first step of many, we are excited to continue working with the Open Space Institute, our supporters and the communities to ensure that this project becomes a fully functional greenway for those along its route.”
In July, Montclair applied for two grants from the state Department of Transportation — one from DOT’s Bikeway Program and one from the Safe Streets to Transit Program — to assist with the project.
On Sept. 23, the Essex County Board of Freeholders passed a resolution supporting the construction of the Greenway.
Freeholder President Brendan Gill, who sponsored the resolution, said the trail would connect the surrounding suburbs to three major urban hubs, Newark, Jersey City and New York City, would enhance leisure time/nonwork-related mobility throughout the region without relying on mass transportation or motor vehicles, and would provide a viable commuting option for residents of the towns along its path.
“Residents living in these areas typically have higher obesity rates and less access to healthy activities due to dangerous neighborhoods, unsafe streets and lack of affordable transportation options,” said Gill, a Montclair resident. “The Greenway would provide these communities with safe recreational areas to exercise, enjoy the outdoors and improve their quality of life.”
The Open Space Institute works to acquire and preserve land for public use, wildlife and habitat protection, water conservation and other uses. It has been working with the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, the National Sept. 11 Memorial Trail and other regional partners on the project.
Abandoned since 2002, the tracks have fallen into disrepair, with large amounts of litter along the line.
In 2018, when the Bike & Walk Coalition and other groups began taking steps to move the trail project forward, Norfolk Southern representatives said that they were against the idea of a recreational trail, citing safety and liability concerns, as well as the prospect that freight service could eventually be resumed.