By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Proponents of the plan for a nine-mile Essex-Hudson Greenway from Montclair to Jersey City are now exploring new options for funding the long-proposed project — but they’re being mum about what it is.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is on board with the project in principle, officials said. But the administration “has chosen to explore an alternative” to borrowing about $155 million from the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank, Dene Lee, senior director of Northeast Land for the Open Space Institute, said. The OSI has the exclusive right until January of 2022 to purchase the land where the Greenway would be located, along the old Boonton Line, which closed in 2002 after the completion of the Montclair Connection at the Bay Street train station.
But Lee said she could not comment on what funding sources were being explored because “these conversations are being driven by the administration and the coalition is not in the position to elaborate.”
The plan is to create a linear park along unused railroad tracks, with a 100-foot-wide biking and hiking path that runs through eight towns: Montclair,
Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny, Secaucus and Jersey City. Essex County Commissioner and Montclair resident Brendan Gill has said it would bring the Essex County communities together by promoting healthy outdoor activities.
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In 2014, the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition adopted the Greenway campaign, then known as the Ice & Iron Greenway. The group later partnered with the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance and the OSI, and they reached a preliminary purchase and sale agreement in 2019 with Norfolk Southern Railway Co. for the property after it successfully filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board, calling for the formal abandonment of the line.
But in July, after decades of work by the groups, proponents said time was running out on securing state funding for the project. The group had approached the state with a plan to borrow $65 million for the purchase and another $90 million for development through the Infrastructure Bank, which provides local governments with low-interest loans for projects that protect water resources or the public health, and that make sustainable economic development possible.
In May, Hudson County applied for the loan through the Infrastructure Bank.
At the time, a source within the Murphy administration said that although the governor supports the Essex-Hudson Greenway, and that the administration was willing to work with all stakeholders on exploring options to assist in funding the project, there were concerns about the constitutionality of funding the project by issuing debt without voter approval.
“The concerns expressed [by proponents] in July were two-fold. First, the use of specified money associated with a New Jersey Infrastructure Bank loan had a limited timeframe and availability,” Lee said. Secondly, she said, “should the January 2022 purchase deadline be missed, Norfolk Southern will be free to sell off pieces of the property, and eliminate the possibility of a contiguous greenway.”
The group of proponents also proposed that the loan be paid over the next 30 years, at a rate of $7 million a year from the Realty Transfer Fund, which sets aside a portion of money collected on property sales throughout the state. For each of the last 15 years, the funding has been set aside for acquisitions under the sunsetting Highlands Act.
Proponents and Murphy administration officials would not comment on whether that funding source is still available, but in July, a source within the Murphy administration said state officials were uncertain “of the mechanical ability to leverage the $7M as described, given other statutory and constitutional constraints.”
In early September, Murphy’s press aide, Michael Zhadanovsky, told Montclair Local that state officials are “continuing to evaluate funding solutions for the Essex-Hudson Greenway and are committed to collaborating with all stakeholders to work towards identifying a path forward for this project.”
On Sept. 1, New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition and Open Space Institute joined Newark area officials in a public meeting that 60 people attended. Officials there said the Greenway would create open space and economic development in areas along the line, which they said has been left to decay and overgrow and has attracted negative activity such as prostitution and illegal dumping.
Newark Council Member Luis A. Quintana, who owns a property along the line, said his property value has declined due to the line becoming an eyesore.
“You can’t walk through weeds that are 12 feet tall,” Quintana said.
The Rev. Timothy Graff of the Social Concerns Office of the Newark Archdiocese said that from a Catholic perspective, the project meets the criteria of stewardship of land for future generations for the community’s good, and will be a blessing for the marginalized.
Debra Kagan of New Jersey Bike Walk said the project could mitigate flooding with the creation of a stormwater overflow system, and would reduce greenhouse gases by providing safe alternative means of transportation. With subterranean rights that would come with the purchase, more internet connectivity could be created to increase digital access.
Kagan said the Greenway would also create more jobs, and economic development as it becomes a destination for communities near the path.
Tom Keane, who tuned into the presentation and is a cyclist, said: “We are so starved for public space in northern New Jersey and this could help. There would also be economic benefits for businesses along and at the ends of the route. If we fail to get this built, it would seem unforgivable to future generations.”