By Jaimie Julia Winters
First suggested nearly 20 years ago, the Essex-Hudson Greenway Project is inching closer to reality, project officials say.
The plan is to convert 8.6 miles of unused railroad tracks on the old Boonton Line into a 100-foot-wide biking and hiking path 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 is now partnered with the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance and the Open Space Institute, which reached a preliminary purchase and sale agreement in 2019 with Norfolk Southern Railway Company for the property. That agreement gives OSI exclusive right to purchase the property until the end of this year; after that point, the owner could consider other buyers, said Dene Lee, senior director Northeast Land Program at OSI.
The purchase would cost $65 million, Montclair resident and executive director of New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition Debra Kagan told residents and officials on a Zoom presentation on Wednesday, March 31.
The group envisions something similar to High Line in New York City, with benches, gardens and art.
Benefits, they say, include:
- Creation of a safe, off-road trail to ride a bike, walk, educate or play
- Easing traffic by offering active transportation options
- Giving green-space access to residents in communities that lack parks
- Creating alternate commuting options, like biking or walking
- Boosting the economies of towns along the corridor by bringing in people to shop and dine
Officials did not elaborate on the funding sources for the purchase, only to say that it is coming from a combination of local, county, state and federal sources.
One of the purposes of the meeting, which drew out 200 people, was to garner renewed interest in the project.
The line was closed in 2002 after the completion of Montclair Connection at the Bay Street train station.
Last June, Norfolk Southern filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board, calling for the formal abandonment of rail service along the old Boonton Line from Montclair to Jersey City. It noted its intention to sell to the OSI the right-of-way with the line’s rail, track materials and bridges intact.
Kagan said the time to act is now, before the rail line company changes course and begins selling the land off in pieces, and technically dismantling the continuous trail from Montclair to Jersey City.
“The development and management of the greenway will happen after the acquisition and could be paid for through a combination of public and private funds,” New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition states on its website.
The trail would then be owned and managed by Essex and Hudson counties.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis pointed to President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill as a possible funding source. That aid, some of which is earmarked for biking and hiking infrastructures, could finance the Greenway’s design and construction, he said.
Although the smallest section of the trail is located in Montclair, the town could see a boost in economy, with bikers and walkers making the last stop in town. Yacobellis said a bike path, lobbied for by Bike Walk Montclair, could safely link Greenway users from the end of path down Glenridge Avenue to the Bloomfield Avenue business district.
There will be challenges to the design, Kagan said — including in Montclair where the pathway runs along an active rail line, which presents safety issues, and much of the trail in Montclair is below street level. The biggest challenge will be the Hackensack River Bridge, which remains open to allow for river traffic.
One attendee of the online presentation raised concerns about gentrification, pointing to the area around New York City’s High Line. In Montclair, the Greenway will run through the Fourth Ward.
Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill said the project will not become a “gentrification tool” and that it will “improve our overall air quality and health for the underserved communities adjacent to the line.”
“Particularly communities of color in the areas of Newark, Belleville and Bloomfield, will benefit immensely from the presence of the Greenway. This is an extremely important aspect of this project,” he said.
In September 2020 Essex County Commissioners passed a resolution in favor of the project.
“In addition to providing a new outdoor recreation space for Essex and Hudson County residents, the EHG will connect the surrounding suburbs to three major urban hubs – Newark, Jersey City and New York City,” the resolution states. “This will enhance leisure time/non-work-related mobility throughout the region without relying on mass transportation or motor vehicles, and provide a viable commuting option for residents of the towns along its path. The Greenway, through the access to additional recreational space and a long-term reduction in traffic and emissions, will improve the air quality of the region and the overall health of area residents.”