In the Region | New Jersey
A Rail Line Generates New Life
Paul Hawthorne for The New York Times
20.6 MILES AND 23 STATIONS The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail offers passenger service in the Pavonia-Newport area of Jersey City and many other places.
By ANTOINETTE MARTIN
Published: June 1, 2008
HERE is what light rail has delivered to five formerly down-at-heels neighborhoods along the 20.6-mile system in northern New Jersey: more than 10,000 units of new housing, with a total property value surpassing $5 billion.
The opening and continued expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system from 2000 to 2006 have greatly affected all 23 stops on the north-south line running through seven municipalities.
According to a new study from the Voorhees Transportation Center of Rutgers University, some station sites have already been reshaped by development; others are poised for the same treatment.
The detailed study focused especially on five of the station areas — those that researchers considered to have the most potential for development. They are Port Imperial in Weehawken; Ninth Street in Hoboken; the area between the Essex Street and Jersey Avenue stations in Jersey City; the Bergenline Avenue neighborhood of Union City and West New York; and the 34th Street area in Bayonne.
The rail line, originally designed to reduce traffic congestion up and down the Gold Coast, provides connections to the east-west PATH train service into New York City and Newark. It also connects to suburban commuter trains at Hoboken, ferry service at many points, six park-and-ride lots and a passenger elevator connecting West Hoboken with the Jersey City Heights neighborhood.
Along its route, the system has increased the mass transit ridership, improved the environment, spurred creation of businesses, bolstered property values and tax revenues, opened up employment opportunities and engendered a “fresh, emerging sense of place,” said the transit researchers, who were led by Martin E. Robins and Jan S. Wells.
“Acres and acres of old abandoned railyards, piers and industrial sites along the route have been transformed into compact residential, office and retail developments in pedestrian and transit-friendly environments,” the two wrote in the report. It was paid for with grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and New Jersey Transit.
Light-rail ridership was found to have risen fastest over the years of operation at three neighborhoods with PATH stations: Newport in Jersey City (the state’s busiest light-rail station); downtown Hoboken; and Exchange Place in Jersey City.
Mr. Robins suggested in an interview that New Jersey’s light-rail line was becoming a “national showcase” for other regions looking to spur transit-oriented development and “smart growth.” Indeed, the national Council of State Governments recently cited New Jersey, along with California and Massachusetts, as models for other states interested in transit-friendly projects.
Mr. Robins directed the protracted public-private effort to create the New Jersey system from 1988 through 1994. He noted that those residing in the tens of thousands of new units within walking distance of light-rail stops — and others due to open at Liberty Harbor North and Gull’s Cove in Jersey City — now have an easier alternative than driving for getting to work, going shopping or taking in a show.
The Jersey City planner Robert Cotter, one of many local officials, planners and light-rail riders who contributed to the study, told the researchers that he was increasingly seeing vacant spaces in parking areas set aside for employees at office buildings in his city.
Yet Mr. Robins — like Jamie Lefrak, a principal of the Lefrak Group, builder of the Newport residential/office/retail complex — expressed amazement that the light rail was ever built. “We established a route through what were essentially fallow areas,” he said, using a more genteel term for stretches that Mr. Lefrak described as “places most people would not want to go.”
The light-rail passage in turn attracted developers to rehabilitate those places, while providing new mobility for the large, mostly immigrant, community already established in Union City, which has relatively few car owners.
Census figures rank Union City, perched atop the Palisades, above Hoboken, as the most densely populated city in the country.
“When the station was built at Bergenline Avenue,” Mr. Robins said, “it was very meaningful for the people there. Not only was the commute time to jobs in New York and New Jersey chopped by as much as 75 percent, but they suddenly had a convenient way to get to the shopping mall at Newport.”
He called Union City’s turnaround one of the most heartening results of his work on the creation of the system.
Mr. Lefrak noted that many people from Union City now come to work at Newport via light rail. It’s clean and quiet, he said, and it costs $1.90 for a ticket.
The next step, Mr. Lefrak added pointedly, would be for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to build an intermodal connection between the PATH and the light rail at Newport, so transfers could be made within a single building. That has long been part of Port Authority plans, but Mr. Lefrak said he saw the project as having been all but abandoned since the 2001 terrorist attacks, which redirected effort and money toward a rebuilt PATH system feeding into a new World Trade Center complex.
Mr. Robins also recalled frustration with New York transit officials — in his case, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which resisted calls from New Jersey planners to set up bus lines from western Staten Island to Exchange Place after the PATH station was built, and after a number of companies moved their operations from downtown Manhattan to the New Jersey waterfront in the late 1990s.
“Staten Islanders traditionally held a lot of those jobs that were moved,” he said, “and their only way to follow the jobs was with a fairly horrendous automobile commute.”
After the light-rail station opened in Bayonne opposite Staten Island, large numbers of commuters began driving there and catching the train. In 2003, the M.T.A. did institute bus service, and “ridership exploded” at the 34th Street station in Bayonne.
Now, the east side of Bayonne looks as though it may be the next target of major new development, including 6,700 residential units and lots of cultural space.
The prospective site is a military ocean terminal that was closed some years ago. Bayonne finds itself well positioned to attract developers, Mr. Robins noted, because the 34th Street station and another at 45th Street provide convenient access to the site.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company