By ERIN ROLL
For the last decade, trail advocates in Montclair and surrounding towns have lobbied for the former Boonton rail line to be turned into a recreational walking and biking trail.
Now, the project could be moving forward.
The Open Space Institute, a New York-based nonprofit, is in negotiations with Norfolk Southern Railway to acquire the nine miles of track for conversion into a trail.
On June 19, Norfolk Southern filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that oversees economic issues related to ground transportation, seeking to abandon the line and transfer ownership to the Open Space Institute, at a price of $65 million.
The institute works to acquire and preserve land for public use, wildlife and habitat protection, water conservation and other uses. It has been working with the New Jersey Bike-Walk Coalition, the National Sept. 11 Memorial Trail and other regional partners on the project.
The trail would run through Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny and Jersey City.
“I know all of us here in town have been pushing to see this move forward for a number of years, so we’re thrilled to see a nonprofit with an opportunity to bring that to realization,” Mayor Sean Spiller said.
Montclair plans to apply for two grants from the state Department of Transportation — one from DOT’s Bikeway Program and one from the Safe Streets to Transit Program — to assist with the project.
The grants were mentioned during the July 7 Township Council meeting and will officially be discussed and voted on at the July 21 meeting. The dollar amounts of the grants were not disclosed.
Township Manager Timothy Stafford said that $2 million is needed as leverage for the $65 million purchase price of the land and other expenses.
Stafford said that the Open Space Institute is responsible for the negotiations and purchase. Montclair and the other municipalities are acting as pass-throughs for the funding, he said.
Norfolk Southern has owned the line since 1999. NJ Transit ended passenger rail service on the line in 2002 with the opening of the Montclair Connection near the present-day Bay Street Station.
At the time, NJ Transit decided that it would be too expensive to maintain passenger service on the Boonton line, due to costs and low ridership. The petition said that in 2004, railroad officials said it would have cost $26 million just to repair and reopen the line, along with $46 million in needed capital spending over the next 10 years.
Since 2002 the tracks have fallen into disrepair, with large amounts of litter along the line.
In 2018, the Bike-Walk Coalition and other groups began taking steps to move the trail project forward. The project received support from county and municipal officials, including the mayors of all the towns along the line.
However, at the time, Norfolk Southern representatives said that they were against the idea of a recreational trail, citing safety and liability concerns, as well as the prospect that freight service could eventually be resumed.
The petition says that shipping companies would not suffer any losses, since the area surrounding the track is home to major highways and interstates such as the Turnpike and the Parkway.
In March 2018, Norfolk Southern representatives told Montclair Local that the railroad would be willing to consider a fair-market offer for the property.
Norfolk Southern representatives said the railroad would decline comment while the review of the report by the Surface Transportation Board was in progress.
Open Space Institute representatives said in a statement on July 1: “As Norfolk Southern has recently begun their process to allow for the rail line’s potential handover, we continue to pursue the reality of a shared-use linear park that would improve the public’s access to nature, enhance transportation options and benefit all of the communities along its route.
“While the current public health emergency has intervened in an already challenging process, we are optimistic that this vision will soon be realized, and we will continue to share our progress with as much detail as possible.”