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Public Banks and Public Rail: Expanding Green Public Transit in New Jersey

At a time when fossil fuels are peaking, climate change is spiraling, and the public sphere is cracking under the weight of elite corporate interests, the Garden State’s rail tracks provide a vast array of public wealth whose revitalization could be a game-changer for transportation in New Jersey. We can see that untapped potential by looking at the state’s tracks on a simple map or through a GIS. It’s time for a re-activation of New Jersey’s short line rail branch lines, to turn them from dormant and underused tracks to clean and green public transportation.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, with about 8.7 million people contained in 8,500 square miles. This population density is brought into even more stark relief when one considers that 20% of the state has been taken out of active development potential in The Pine Barrens. More recently, perhaps another 10% has been removed from development potential in The Highlands. While these are wise environmental preservation strategies, they call for a compatible public transportation vision.

railroads-mediumNew Jersey’s short line freight railroads and branch lines traverse densely populated portions of the state, including both urban and older suburban areas. Interestingly, some of these smaller rail lines have already been studied, and even considered for redevelopment potential, by studies conducted by New Jersey Transit extending as far back as 2000.

These underutilized rail line assets are either infrequently serviced by freight trains, or are actually semi-abandoned. Much of New Jersey’s rail branch line freight traffic has disappeared during the past few decades, as New Jersey either ceded or lost its once dense network of manufacturing facilities. These changes call for what urban planners term “adaptive re-use”. Retooling the state’s rail branch lines for public transportation offers a path towards sustainable re-use of a rich state resource at a time when climate change and dwindling fossil fuels call for new, smart, sustainable transportation system expansion.

Studies by New Jersey Transit dating back to 2000 have recommended development of rail passenger corridors on approximately twelve different lines. Those lines are strategically located and seriously underutilized. The following three lines provide a representative and geographically diverse sample:

  • Middlesex-Ocean-Monmouth (MOM), connecting the North Jersey Coastline with the Northeast Corridor;
  • The Morristown and Erie freight railroad located in eastern Morris County and western Essex County-connecting Morristown with Roseland;
  • and The Lackawanna Cut-Off, connecting northeastern New Jersey with links to cities in northeastern Pennsylvania, including Scranton and The Poconos.

Aside from a paltry 7-mile western and disconnected extension of this line from Netcong to Andover, no serious forward movement on restoring passenger service on this line has been accomplished. Even the recently completed 7 mile extension is not being utilized. And even worse, The Lackawanna Cut-Off, is being subjected to seemingly endless Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), now exceeding twenty years in duration. The Lackawanna Cut-Off was an award winning engineering marvel in its time (completed in 1907, and operated until 1979. Why all of the EIS studies now? More engineering firm “pork” I suspect. It was a straight 30 mile long “airline” embankment that bridged over river valleys, such as the Pequest River from Netcong all of the way to Columbia New Jersey in the Water Gap. It parallels I-80 for the entire distance, but of course I-80 was not completed until 1973. All of the curving tracks of the original mainline through Hacketsttown were obviated, and downgraded to a secondary line. The last passenger train (Hoboken to Chicago) ran over this line in 1970. The last freight train ran in 1979. In 1984 Conrail was granted permission to abandon, and the tracks were promptly pulled-up.

In the rare cases where the state has expanded public rail, the results have been impressive. The 2004 completion of The River Line (construction initiated in 1999), connecting Trenton with Camden, with 35 intermediate station stops, has proven to be more than just a qualified success. In spite of considerable political opposition to its initial funding, construction and subsequent operation, the Riverline has exceeded the expectations of many professional planners, public administrators, politicians, and other naysayers, who dismissed The Riveline as a public taxpayer boondoggle. The Riverline success story could serve as a guiding template for further Green Transit expansion in New Jersey. The now nearly decade-long operation of The River Line has far exceeded the ridership expectations, of the professional planners. It has also facilitated a clustered Transit Oriented Development in close proximity to its various stations and right of way. This clustered development encourages more of the synergies, that connect walking, biking, and use of public transportation. Less automobile use means less carbon build-up in our atmosphere. Less automobile use means less fuel expenditure. Hence the dual goals of adjusting to the new realities of peak oil and climate change are being actively addressed.

Although New Jersey’s land preservation, mentioned earlier, has been laudable, people still need to live somewhere. For decades, many of our older cities and suburbs have lost population to newer suburbs, and even exurbs. That was a workable reality in the days of cheap oil. But that former strategy is now in full reverse mode. This reversal has expressed itself forcefully in the value of real property since the onset of The Great Recession (Contraction?) in 2008. Historically property appreciation has favored the newer suburbs, and later the more outlying exurbs, since the end of World War II. This is no longer the case. The paradigm has changed, and the change has been prompted by the peaking of cheap oil availability.

Thanks to depreciation of property values, older transit-oriented and transit-served suburbs such as South Orange have seen their properties values appreciate, while many of the exit ramp exurbs of western New Jersey now contain underwater mortgages. The economics of off-ramp real estate and automobile-only development patterns is dead. The price of a barrel of oil is still stubbornly located in the $90.00 to $110.00 per barrel range. The harmful development of shale, arboreal and fracking related oil fields, while possibly delaying increases in oil prices, will not lower them in this peak oil age.

One reason for the state’s failure to modernize its public transportation system is the surrender of our public infrastructure to private financial interests. A disproportionate number of highly select engineering, construction, and law firms make and implement decisions that should be the responsibility of public officials acting under transparency and social responsibility. In New Jersey, well-connected corporate interests work hand in glove with politicians and lobbyists, all of whom have a stake in preserving the status quo. But the status quo has changed.

The Middlesex-Ocean-Monmouth, the Morristown and Erie Freight, and the Lackawanna Cutoff rail lines all traverse areas with much higher population densities than existed when passenger services were discontinued decades ago. Meanwhile, expansion of highways continues near these underutilized railbeds, such as route 10 in Morris County, and I-80 in the western part of New Jersey. The study, approval, and implementation of highway expansion occurs much more quickly than action on railways (the Lackawanna Cutoff is now entering its third decade of EIS studies!), and a double-standard appears to exist between policy assessment of highways and that of railways. The last time New Jersey initiated any new passenger railway expansion (not counting the ill-advised cancellation of the Tunnel Project in 2010) was 1999, when oil topped out at $17.00 a barrel.

To fund this and other public transportation initiatives (and a plethora of other public services), New Jersey could establish a public bank. Using money the state already has, a public infrastructure or development bank could issue bonds, support public-private initiatives, and lend to state and local entities at very low interest rates. In this way, a public bank could fund the entire endeavor–modernization, expansion, and greening of public rail transportation–without raising taxes or taking money from other state programs.

New Jersey’s future should contain less highway expansion, and more green public transportation. Imagine New Jersyites saving money by not purchasing second vehicles for dual-income families; accessibility for those too young or too old to drive; fewer maintenance and insurance costs for vehicles; transportation available during severe weather; better land use and development decisions; the opportunity to socialize and relax on the way to work and build your community while communing; and best of all, cleaner transportation at a time when we desperately need it.

Similarly, the implementation of State Banking in New Jersey can provide a sturdy assist to sustainable Transit Oriented Development (TOD), located in close proximity to these newly constructed rail corridors. The implementation of Location Efficient Mortgages (LEM), comports perfectly with sustainable development strategies, because LEM mortgages, are focused on financing real estate located in pedestrian friendly and public transportation accessible communities. LEM mortgagors could also work in conjunction with The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to facilitate a program that was initiated by HUD in the early 1990s: a program that provides mortgage insurance premium reductions for homeowners who do not own a car, but instead utilize public transportation as an alternative.

The reintroduction of passenger rail service on strategically located rail assets in New Jersey is not a “boutique” consideration. It is actually a very urgent and practical matter. Providing a true and workable alternative to automobile-exclusive transportation will immediately address the harmful legacy of the carbon-based economy. Auto-centric vehicles that threaten our groundwater and soil will gradually be phased out with the implementation of a fixed rail passenger alternative.

Another sense of urgency addressed by reactivation of passenger rail lines involves mobility issues themselves, or possibly the lack thereof at a future date. There is scant media attention being paid to the current per barrel price of oil (exceeding $100.00 as of this writing). It is not inconceivable that there will come a time when a sustained high level of gasoline prices will finally become unaffordable to the majority of the people. What will people do if there is no alternative transportation back-up? Limit their mobility to walking and bicycling only, in a more geographically constrained orbit? With the advent of community-oriented public banking, New Jersey would be able to make the necessary rapid transitions that are crucial in this era. To continue on a highway- and auto-centric transportation path in these times is, to use a quote from the urbanist and social critic James Kunstler, “an investment in yesterday’s tomorrow.”

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