The new funding agreement for New Jersey's Transportation Trust Fund has reignited hope for the long-sought extension of a light rail line into Bergen County.
State Senate Democratic leaders are pushing for monies from a recently-approved 23-cent gas tax hike to extend the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line, describing it as a critical mass transit project for New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan region. Despite its optimistic name, service on the 16-year-old, 34-mile light rail system is entirely within Hudson County.
"This is one of the most important mass transit projects in New Jersey that will serve a critical transportation need in the region," Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said in a statement. "The wait has been long enough to get this done."
Boosters say expanding the line into Bergen County would help generate up to $3 billion in economic activity. The project is estimated to cost between $800 million and $1 billion with the hope being that federal funding pay for much of it.
The rail system , which is owned by New Jersey Transit and operated by the 21st Century Rail Corporation, connects Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, Union City and North Bergen (which is in Hudson County).
Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, said past efforts to expand the system have been stalled by funding uncertainties and has left a high population in eastern Bergen County without commuter rail access. He said the expansion would greatly boost to real estate values in Bergen County and make the area more attractive for new businesses.
"It would provide a huge shot of adrenaline to these communities and provide a new attraction to investors," said Robins. "It would make the whole area more vibrant and more accessible."
Before the project can proceed, an environmental review of the extension needs to be approved. New Jersey Transit submitted it to the Federal Transit Administration in April.
NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said the review should be published for public review and comment by the end of 2016 with public hearings to follow. Competition of the review would enable the FTA to chip in with funding for the project.
"It's a very promising project," said Robins, who expects it to be a strong candidate for federal funds. "It has been talked about for many years, but has gone very slowly."
The project would extend light rail service for eight miles, linking Bergen County commuters to ferry and PATH train connections to Manhattan.
New Jersey Transit's Environmental Impact Statement estimates ridership on the expanded line at 20,000 trips per day. One of the new train stops would be next to Englewood Hospital, which backers emphasize will benefit both counties since Hudson residents will have enhanced commuting options.
"Investing in a world-class transportation infrastructure is one of the best ways to provide an immediate boost to the economy and to support long-term growth and opportunity," State Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood Ridge, who sponsored the TTF legislation, said in a statement. "The Hudson-Bergen rail line will provide economic benefits for Bergen County and the entire North Jersey region."
New Jersey lawmakers reached an agreement with Gov. Chris Christie last month to pay for transportation funding for eight years at $2 billion annually backed by the gas tax increase that took effect Nov. 1. The gas tax is expected to raise roughly $1.2 billion yearly for the TTF.
New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, emphasized the economic importance of the project for Bergen County in providing new transportation options for residents, attracting new businesses and boosting home values. Weinberg, whose district encompasses Bergen County, noted the light rail has already boosted investment for Hudson County since it was implemented 16 years ago.
"It will provide a vital link from Bergen County to the Hudson River waterfront, to PATH connections to midtown and lower Manhattan, and to ferry stops in Weehawken, Hoboken and Jersey City," said Weinberg. "It will also help to get employees and patients from the region to Englewood Hospital. The expansion will create significant benefits for the region and we believe an economic impact that far exceeds the investment."
The TTF agreement sets aside 10.5 cents of the state's gasoline and diesel fuel taxes into the fund for transportation projects such as the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. The transportation program roughly doubles state aid to counties and municipalities for local roadway and bridge repairs to $400 million. It also includes a $250 million Transportation Infrastructure Bank to lower borrowing costs for municipalities.
Voters will decide on a referendum on Nov. 8 that would create a constitutional requirement that all gas tax be earmarked for transportation spending. Passage of the referendum would prevent future governors or legislatures from diverting gas tax revenues and provide a dedicated funding source to finance the eight-year $16 billion transportation plan that includes $12 billion in borrowing and $500 million a year in pay-as-you-go spending.
Willem Rijksen, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Treasury, said transportation projects could still proceed if the ballot measure fails, but would involve a different funding source. In addition to gas tax revenue, the state could also borrow against constitutionally dedicated sales and use tax revenues that voters approved in 2000 for transportation purposes, Rijksen said.
"Since July 1, 2003 and in each state fiscal year thereafter, an amount not less than $200 million from the sales and use tax must be dedicated for transportation purposes," said Rijksen. "This existing constitutional dedication permits the State Legislature the ability to authorize bonding authority without additional voter approval, provided that the source-of-repayment of these subject-to-appropriation bonds are constitutionally dedicated revenues."