Monday, May 16, 2016

Extending New Jersey’s River Line Light Rail to downtown Trenton

A New Jersey business group has refloated the idea of extending the River Line transit system from the city’s train station, where it now terminates, to the downtown area, a distance of a bit more than a mile (news story here). Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce director Bob Prunetti announced the plan in a press conference with Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson.  The existing line is mostly on dedicated right-of-way, but the extension would run on city streets.  Some initial planning was done on this segment when the line was started, but it was dropped for cost considerations.  It is currently on an NJ Transit shelf list (“projects to be defined/studied”).
The extension is a great idea and should be done to fully connect the state capital to the state’s transit network.  In fact, the extension really needs to continue – in a future phase – through Trenton to connect with another rail line and with the Trenton airport.  (This was recommended by an airport land use study I led a few years ago.)  There is, not surprisingly, no money for this project, or for several transit projects queued up ahead of it.  However, we continue to hope that the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund will some day be replenished and will begin to fund the work that needs to be done to bring the state’s transportation system into the 21st century.
For those of you not familiar with it, the River Line is a 34-mile long, 21-station diesel transit line connecting Trenton and Camden and carrying 9,000 passengers a day.  It runs through several old towns along the Delaware River and was envisioned as an economic development project as much as a transportation project.  (The story of its birth involves a political promise to invest state Transportation Trust Fund money in transit in South Jersey, a rebellion against another proposed line by wealthier suburban towns, and the availability of a rail right-of-way that Conrail was dumping.)   Although usually categorized as a light rail line, it really has more in common with the type of service that a hundred years ago was called an “interurban” line.
The Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce decided to launch the project as a means of stimulating economic development in downtown Trenton.  The city’s redevelopment has lagged behind that of similar urban areas in the Northeast. 
The group has backed up its proposal with a white paper, “Light Rail Economic Impact Study for the City of Trenton” (link in the news story cited above), which lays out the economic development case for the project.  The study also refers to the further extension, toward the airport and the Ewing Township redevelopment project, which I mentioned earlier.  The full River Line extension – together with existing and proposed Amtrak, NJ Transit, and SEPTA rail lines, a new BRT service, and a relocated airport terminal – would create a modern, transit-linked, urban center, anchored by the state capital and the Princeton knowledge hub. 
Now we just need to start putting the pieces into place.

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