On rusted tracks, unused for nearly 20 years, long overgrown with weeds and random berry bushes and largely obscured by gravel, a grand vision will begin to take form.

The precise spot is not yet known, but this forsaken piece of land in Montclair, somewhere around Ridgewood Avenue and Osborne Street, will mark an entryway to the Essex-Hudson Greenway — a linear park that will stretch nearly nine miles to Jersey City, encompassing eight towns and cities overall.

Years in the advocacy and negotiation phase, the massive project took a major leap toward being realized Thursday when Gov. Phil Murphy announced that the state had finally closed a deal with Norfolk Southern Railway to purchase the dormant track bed for $65 million. 

“The hard part,” the governor said, “shining up this diamond in the rough, starts now.”

A day later, Essex County Commissioner-At-Large Brendan Gill was still in celebratory mode.

“This was a day we sometimes thought we would never see,” he said in an interview Friday. “It’s a big idea. It’s a big project. It’s no longer a question of if, only a question of when.”

Officials, environmentalists and urban planners see in the Greenway a kind of haven for bicyclists, runners and walkers, and a paradigm for connecting disparate communities in an eco-friendly way. They envision rain gardens to mitigate flooding, habitat restoration and an opportunity to get commuters out of their cars. Montclair residents working in lower Manhattan, for instance, could bike to Jersey City before hopping on a PATH train.

It will be comparable, planners say, to the Atlanta BeltLine, the Chicago 606 and the High Line in Manhattan, though it will dwarf the High Line’s 1.5-mile span and 50-foot width. Rough schematics have the Greenway at a typical 100 feet in width and will include stretches as wide as 400 feet.

What distinguishes it, though, is its reach, carving a path through the state’s most densely populated region. With Montclair and Jersey City as its end points, it will pass through Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny and Secaucus. It will traverse urban areas, suburbs and industrial patches, cross the Passaic River and cut across wetlands. 

Gill, who became a driving force for the project more than 15 years ago, said the new corridor has the potential to deeply affect the way residents in the region relate to one another — linking them through an easily accessible passageway.  

Essex County Commissioner-At-LargeBrendan Gill (left) and Gov. Phil Murphy (CRAIG WOLFF/STAFF)
Essex County Commissioner-At-LargeBrendan Gill (left) and Gov. Phil Murphy (CRAIG WOLFF/STAFF)

“New Jersey is one of the most segregated states in the country,” Gill said. “That is a reality we need to deal with each and every day. This type of project brings communities, who though they might be neighbors, might not otherwise have come together.”

“The early reason I was attracted to it,” Gill said, “is that it represents the best promise of Montclair, which is to bring people together.”

Murphy made the announcement on Wednesday in Branch Brook Park in Newark, joined by several officials, including Gill and leaders from three non-profits who played pivotal roles in working out the deal and securing support — the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, the September 11th National Memorial Trail and the Open Space Institute. 

For New Jersey State Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, the purging of the old rail line is a kind of personal victory. She grew up by the park, and still lives in the neighborhood. The tracks — part of New Jersey’s old Boonton Line — slash east to west through the park and the surrounding homes, skirting the edge of the Park Elementary School and creating an eyesore and safety hazard.

Ruiz does her morning jog in the park, and her daughter rides a scooter there. Ruiz pointed to a hillside she would run up as a girl to buy candy and ice cream from Debbie’s Everything bodega, stepping over treacherous debris on the tracks. She said the tracks are known in the community as Zombie Lane, and a walk by the tracks alongside the elementary school reveals why. It has a menacing look, with fallen trees and railway crossing signs giving it the look of a place time forgot.

The area that will mark the beginning of the trail in Montclair shows similar scars. The weathered tracks are barely recognizable beneath overgrown vegetation. An old black metal chair sits on the middle of the tracks as if waiting for someone to come along.

The Greenway will transform a piece of Montclair — though small. Proposals have the new park extending only about 500 feet into the town. But the project has ignited plans to build dedicated bike lanes feeding into the park, in a way extending its footprint in the area, said Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition, which is headquartered in Montclair. 

Kagan said that the park, in providing a safe walking space, has the potential to reduce dependency on cars and with it, pedestrian fatalities. 

“This is a positive solution,” she said. “We have seen green spaces work in other parts of the country. New Jersey has not been very advanced in this area. This is a chance to re-evaluate the culture. Greenway will be a catalyst for biking throughout the town.”

In addition to the $65 million cost for purchasing the land, the state legislature has set aside $20 million in this year’s budget for planning and readying the misbegotten grounds for a makeover. Some officials said the cost of the Greenway could end up running more than $100 million, and finishing it could extend past a decade. Citing Murphy’s commitment, they said the governor wants to see a segment of the park completed and in use before he leaves office in 2026.