By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
New Jersey will purchase nine miles of an abandoned rail line that runs from Montclair to Jersey City to create the Essex-Hudson Greenway, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday.
The project is decades in the making, and comes after more than three years of negotiations between its proponents and owner Norfolk Southern Corporation. The state will purchase the 135-acre property that runs through eight towns — Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny, Secaucus and Jersey City — setting it aside for open space as a recreational bike and walking trail.
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. In 2019, the three groups reached a preliminary purchase and sale agreement of $65 million with Norfolk Southern for the property after the rail company successfully filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board, calling for the formal abandonment of the line. That agreement runs out in January 2022, and proponents were concerned that if the deadline was missed, Norfolk Southern would sell off pieces of the property and eliminate the possibility of a contiguous greenway.
“This Greenway project has been a major campaign of ours for nearly a decade and we are thrilled that the state has taken this critical step in making this dream a reality that will offer so many benefits to all our residents,” said Debra Kagan, Executive Director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition. “It will bring enhanced quality-of-life to the entire region, provide access to open space to underserved communities, and be a landmark of development that promotes healthy communities.”
In the summer, the groups approached the state with a plan to borrow $65 million for the purchase and another $90 million for development through the Infrastructure Bank, which provides local governments with low-interest loans for projects that protect water resources or the public health, and that make sustainable economic development possible.
On Friday, Nov. 12, Murphy’s office issued a statement saying funding would be provided through a collaborative effort, which includes “the support of the Department of Environmental Protection and NJ Transit, the Legislature and New Jersey’s congressional delegation, utilizing American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding.”
“Over the past few years, NJ Transit and the Open Space Institute have been engaged in negotiations with the Norfolk Southern Corporation for the purchase of this land, which will now be possible with the state’s support,” the statement reads. “The state’s acquisition of the land also allows its potential future use for mass transit purposes, alongside recreational uses.”
At a press conference at Bloomfield Public Library announcing the acquisition, Murphy said the project will be the “crown jewel of our state park system.” But he said that the gem is a “rough cut one” that will take time and more funding to complete cleanup of the property and bring the trail to fruition.
Kagan credited Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill with being a tireless “champion” of the Greenway and in securing the funding for the acquisition.
Gill said the state’s commitment for funding the purchase of the land “is a monumental step for the future of northeastern New Jersey. Upon its completion, the EHG will serve as a blueprint for future environmentally friendly infrastructure projects nationwide, while helping our local communities rebound from the financial challenges we experienced due to the pandemic.”
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, whose 29th legislative district includes some of Newark and all of Belleville, said at the press conference that the area has become known as the “Zombie Track.” Ruiz, a Democrat, was also named the state Senate’s majority leader the same day.
“For far too long our families have had to deal with the negative impact of an abandoned rail line. From illegal dumping to being an inviting space for negative activities, the rail line has tainted homeownership, backyards, new developments, new elementary schools and the first countywide park system in the country,” Ruiz said.
Kagan previously told Montclair Local the project would mitigate flooding with the creation of a stormwater overflow system, and would reduce greenhouse gases by providing safe alternative means of transportation. With subterranean rights that would come with the purchase, more internet connectivity could be created to increase digital access, she said.
Kagan said the Greenway would also create more jobs, and economic development as it becomes a destination for communities near the path.
Part of the funding still needs to go through the legislature’s Joint Budget Oversight Committee.
Assemblymember Eliana Pintor-Marin said: “This project is environmentally friendly, aims to improve water infrastructure and creates recreational opportunities for area residents. It is our sincere hope that JBOC approves the funding for this critical initiative.”
The project has also received $4 million in funding from the Thomas Kempner Jr. Foundation, Helen and the William Mazer Foundation and the Partners for Health Foundation, Open Space Institute President and CEO Kim Elliman said. Those funds have covered permits, studies and community outreach.
“Without question, this deal underscores all the merits of public-private partnerships and strategic land protection in one package,” Elliman said. “The Greenway project will make it easier for millions of people to enjoy the benefits of being outdoors, completely transform the way communities connect with nature and connect with each other, linking people to parks, waterways, and their neighbors — all while creating alternative transportation options, improving water quality, and spurring economic activity.”
Projects that encourage car-free transportation, such as the Greenway, will help New Jersey reach its goals of reducing overall emissions by 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050, Murphy said.
Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette said: “This is a historic investment that will enrich communities in Essex and Hudson counties, the state and the region — serving as a hub for ecotourism and unlocking the potential for even greater transit and environmental infrastructure improvements. It is exactly the kind of transformative project that New Jersey residents deserve.”
Montclair Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who was recently appointed to the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition’s board, said he hopes the state’s approval will instigate the development of better biking and walking infrastructure in Montclair to connect the Greenway with downtown along Glenridge Avenue.
Kagan said the $90 million for development is just an estimate. How that funding is secured and when remains up in the air, Kagan said.
“The first step was the acquisition of the right of way to the property. We now have that commitment,” Kagan said.