Local pols tie one-seat ride return with Gateway

Photo by Liv Meier
Jerry Zaro of the Gateway Development Corporation makes his presentation for the need for the Gateway Project rail tunnel during a townhall-style event in Cranford to discuss the status of NJ Transit’s ‘one-seat ride’ on the Raritan Valley Line.

CRANFORD, NJ — If the Hudson River rail tunnel were to partially shut down, more than 500,000 passengers would experience a longer commute along the Raritan Valley Line, according to Jerry Zaro, the director of the Gateway Development Corporation.

The message came during a March 26 presentation at the Cranford Community Center by the ad-hoc Raritan Valley Rail Coalition, ostensibly to update commuters and other residents on the status of NJ Transit’s suspended “one-seat ride” program.

The meeting also served as a rallying point for local politicians advocating to pressure federal officials to fund the Gateway Program, an initiative estimated to cost $17 billion that would build new rail bridges and tunnels to Manhattan from New Jersey.

“We have heard from many residents who have been personally impacted by the delays and cancellations,” said Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski, a Cranford resident. “We will continue to make our voices heard for the completion of the Gateway project and the restoration of the one-seat ride for direct service to New York.”

The RVRC has been lobbying for a one-seat ride for commuters in Union, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Somerset counties into and out of New York City during peak and off-peak hours on the Raritan Valley Line for more than two decades.
NJ Transit suspended its limited, off-peak one-seat program — in which passengers remain on the same train to and from Manhattan without changing in Newark — in August to complete its installation of positive train control safety equipment throughout its rail fleet.

The transportation agency announced in December it had completed the PTC installation, but has given no specific timetable for resumption of the one-seat service, although it originally projected it would be in 2019.

“The fact that the Raritan Valley Rail line has 23,000 daily riders — more than many other rail lines — is justification for us to have a one-seat ride into New York City. We cannot afford to continue to wait. We have to continue to keep the pressure on,” Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp said at the meeting. Plainfield has two train stations on the Raritan Valley Rail Line.

The RVRC is comprised of local politicians and others who conducted the March 26 town hall meeting, inviting Zaro to boost their case for the Gateway funding. NJ Transit has cited a lack of tunnel capacity as its main reason for not expanding the one-seat ride program.

The Gateway Program also includes a replacement for century-old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, a swingspan structure that operators often struggle to close.

“We are using tunnels that were built when your great-grandparents were your age, but what we need is a new bridge and new tunnels that will serve your great-grandchildren,” Zaro said. “We have skipped three generations in making infrastructure repair, but the time is now.”

The GDC, a nonprofit group established under the auspices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to advocate for the Gateway Program, is seeking a two-track fixed span over the Hackensack River. The new bridge, which would be high enough to allow boat traffic to pass underneath and not require opening or closing, would increase rail transit capacity by an estimated 11 percent, according to Zaro.

The first phase of the program also includes the construction of a new tunnel under the Hudson River and the rehabilitation of the existing tunnel.

The Gateway Program would be the largest current infrastructure project in the United States, according to Zaro, who said that the GDC is currently fighting for federal funding for the project. He also said that a partial tunnel shutdown would also lead to a loss of about $6 billion in economic activity in the area.

Zaro pointed out that the Portal Bridge, which carries every train between Washington and Boston, sometimes has to be locked close by using sledge hammers after it opens up for vessels to pass under it.

Raritan Valley Rail Coalition Chairman Bruce Bergen told the audience that, as of March 14, the Portal Bridge will have extended hours during which it cannot be open for peak traffic hours. This came after RVRC wrote a letter to the commander of the Coast Guard asking him to keep the Portal Bridge in place during rush hour in December.

While local officials pressed to link the one-seat ride with the Gateway Program, others voiced deep skepticism.
After Zaro’s presentation, former Long Island Rail Road Director of Planning Joe Clift expressed dissatisfaction with the Gateway Program, saying that it won’t help implement a one-seat ride.

“Seventeen billion dollars later and there will not be one additional peak-hour train,” Clift said during the public comment portion. “Before you get your trains, you’re going to have to basically get another $17 billion for the one-seat ride.”