BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTER
Supporters of a nine-mile Essex-Hudson greenway from Montclair to Jersey City are trying to secure a state commitment on funding by the end of July before time runs out, they say.
After decades of work by the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, the Open Space Institute, and the 9/11 National Memorial Trail, the dream of creating the 135-acre linear park is on the verge of collapse. they declared because the heads of state have not committed to funding the project and the deadlines are running out.
The plan is to convert the land along the unused rail lines of the old Boonton Line into a 100-foot-wide hiking and biking trail that runs through eight towns: Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny, Secaucus and Jersey City. In 2014, the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition adopted the Greenway campaign, then known as the Ice & Iron Greenway. The group then partnered with the National 9/11 Memorial Trail Alliance and the Open Space Institute, which reached a preliminary buy and sell agreement in 2019 with Norfolk Southern Railway Company for the property. The deal gives OSI the exclusive right to purchase the property at $ 65 million until January 2022.
But after January, the owner could consider other buyers, Dene Lee, senior director of the Northeast Lands Program at OSI, told Montclair Local.
In an open letter to Gov. Phil Murphy, Montclair City Councilor Peter Yacobellis said he was concerned with no action on the part of the Governor: âI think Norfolk Southern will run out of time for this current deal, then s will hasten to sell the line in pieces. ”
Norfolk Southern has yet to return a message requesting comment.
OSI approached the state for a loan of $ 65 million for the purchase and an additional $ 90 million for development. OSI said Essex County requested the $ 155 million loan through the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank. This entity grants low-interest loans to local communities for projects that project water resources or public health, and make sustainable economic development possible.
Messages sent to a county spokesperson and County Commissioner Brendan Gil’s office on Thursday regarding the status of the claim had yet to be returned on Friday.
The developer group also proposed that the loan be repaid over the next 30 years, at a rate of $ 7 million per year from the Real Estate Transfer Fund, which sets aside some of the money raised on the statewide property sales. For each of the past 15 years, funding has been set aside for acquisitions under the Endangered Highlands Act.
“If the state does not act with the I-Bank by early July, the funds will be reallocated to other projects and the RTF will be absorbed into the general fund”, the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, l ‘OSI and the September 11 National Memorial Trail Alliance said in a joint statement late last month.
The funds were never used to benefit Essex or Hudson counties despite the fact that those counties are responsible for a significant portion of the collections, the groups said in the statement.
âThe availability of capital funds within the state, coupled with the environmental, economic, equity and public health benefits of Essex-Hudson Greenway, make the state’s indecision to move from there inexplicable. ‘forward with the project because it now puts the entire project at risk,’ Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, said in the joint statement.
Michael Zhadanovsky, spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy, said the governor supports the Essex-Hudson Greenway and the administration is willing to work with all stakeholders to explore options to fund this important project, despite the challenges related to currently proposed funding mechanisms.
But a source in the Murphy administration said there were concerns about the constitutionality of funding the project by issuing debt without voter approval. Regarding loan repayment, state officials are also uncertain “of the mechanical capacity to leverage the $ 7 million described, given other legal and constitutional constraints.”
“Action is needed now to determine whether the Essex-Hudson Greenway will come true or be allowed to die on the vine,” Kim Elliman, President and CEO of the Open Space Institute, said in the joint statement groups, “While there have been many months of encouraging conversations with county and state officials and demonstrations of high-level approval, the deadlines are approaching quickly and must be met to save the project for them. New Jersey residents. ”
Thomas Baxter, president of the National September 11 Memorial Trail Alliance, said in the groups statement that New Jersey “was missing an important opportunity [to] assume a leadership role to accomplish this formidable track.
The trail would be part of a 1,300-mile alignment connecting the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, the Pentagon’s National September 11 Memorial in Arlington, Va., And the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Virginia. Pennsylvania.
The project garnered support from elected officials including New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, U.S. Representative Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11), Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29), and Mayors Michael Gonnelli of Secaucus, Michael Melham of Belleville, Michael Venezia of Bloomfield, Stuart Patrick of Glen Ridge, Sean Spiller of Montclair and Steven Fulop of Jersey City .
The group is considering something similar to The High Line in New York, with benches, gardens and art. They say the project would create a safe off-road trail for biking, walking, education, and play; facilitate circulation; create green spaces in communities that do not have a park; and boost local economies.
The old Boonton line was closed in 2002 after the completion of the Montclair connection to Bay Street station.
In June 2019, Norfolk Southern filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board, calling for an official abandonment of rail service along the old Boonton Line from Montclair to Jersey City. It noted its intention to sell OSI the right-of-way with the rail, track materials and line bridges intact.