BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Proponents of a nine-mile Essex-Hudson Greenway from Montclair to Jersey City are trying to get a commitment from the state on funding by the end of July, before time runs out, they say.
After decades of work by the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, Open Space Institute and the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance, the dream of creating the 135-acre linear park is very close to collapsing, they said, as state leaders have not committed to funding the project and deadlines are about to expire.
The plan is to convert land along unused railroad tracks on the old Boonton Line into a 100-foot-wide biking and hiking path that runs through eight towns: Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny, Secaucus and Jersey City.
A source within the Murphy administration said there are concerns about the constitutionality of funding the project by issuing debt without voter approval.
In 2014, the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition adopted the greenway campaign, then known as the Ice & Iron Greenway. The group later partnered with the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance and the Open Space Institute, and they reached a preliminary purchase and sale agreement in 2019 with Norfolk Southern Railway Co. for the property. That agreement gives the Open Space Institute the exclusive right to purchase the property at $65 million until January 2022.
But after January, the owner could consider other buyers, Dene Lee, senior director of the Northeast Land Program at the Open Space Institute, told Montclair Local.
In an open letter to Gov. Phil Murphy, Montclair Councilman Peter Yacobellis said he worried that without action from the governor, “I believe Norfolk Southern will run down the clock of this current agreement, and then swiftly move to sell the line in pieces.”
Norfolk Southern hasn’t returned a message seeking comment.
The group of proponents has approached the state with a plan to borrow $65 million for the purchase and another $90 million for development through the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank. That entity provides local governments with low-interest loans for projects that protect water resources or the public health, and make sustainable economic development possible.
The group of proponents also proposed that the loan be paid over the next 30 years, at a rate of $7 million a year from the Realty Transfer Fund, which sets aside a portion of money collected on property sales throughout the state. For each of the last 15 years, the funding has been set aside for acquisitions 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 [Realty Transfer Fund] will be absorbed into the general fund,” the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, the Open Space Institute and the September 11 National Memorial Trail Alliance said in a joint statement late last month.
The funds have never been used to benefit Essex or Hudson counties despite the fact that these counties are responsible for a significant portion of the collections, the groups said in the statement.
“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,” Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, said in the joint statement.
Michael Zhadanovsky, spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy, said the governor supports the Essex-Hudson Greenway and the administration is willing to work with all stakeholders on exploring options to assist in funding the project — despite challenges with the current proposed funding mechanisms.
In regard to the loan repayment, state officials also are uncertain “of the mechanical ability to leverage the $7M as described, given other statutory and constitutional constraints,” a source within the Murphy administration said.
But Kim Elliman, president and CEO of the Open Space Institute, said in the groups’ joint statement: “Action is needed now to determine whether the Essex-Hudson Greenway is going to become reality or be allowed to die on the vine. 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.”
Thomas Baxter, president of the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance, said in the groups’ statement New Jersey is “missing a significant opportunity [to] take a leadership role to accomplish this tremendous trail.”
“We are encouraged by Governor Murphy’s public support for the Essex-Hudson Greenway and look forward to working with his administration to identify a funding plan that will make this long sought project a reality for the people of northern New Jersey,” said Eileen Larabee of the Open Space Institute speaking for the Essex-Hudson Greenway Coalition.
The trail would be part of a 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.
The project has garnered support from elected officials including New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, Essex County Commissioner Gill, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), and Mayors Michael Gonnelli of Secaucus, Michael Melham of Belleville, Michael Venezia of Bloomfield, Stuart Patrick of Glen Ridge, Sean Spiller of Montclair and Steven Fulop of Jersey City.
Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, who has advocated for the Essex-Hudson Greenway for over 10 years, said that the Greenway “is a once in a lifetime initiative that will serve as a model for future infrastructure projects throughout the country.
“The agreed upon purchase price for the land the Greenway will be built on was a significant step, but we are now at the point where it is imperative that our leaders in government at the state, county and municipal level work together and bring forward a plan to finance the completion of this historic, transformative project,” Gill said.
The groups envision something similar to High Line in New York City, with benches, gardens and art along the pathway. They say the project would create a safe, off-road trail for biking, walking, education and play; ease traffic; create green spaces in communities that lack parks, and boost local economies.
The old Boonton Line was closed in 2002 after the completion of the Montclair Connection at the Bay Street train station.
In June 2019, Norfolk Southern filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board, calling for the formal abandonment of rail service along the line from Montclair to Jersey City. It noted its intention to sell to the Open Space Institute the right-of-way, with the line’s rail, track materials and bridges intact.
Clarification: In a previous version of this story an Essex-Hudson Greenway official had reported that Essex County had applied for a loan through New Jersey Infrastructure Bank. Essex County did not apply for the loan, according to a county official.