Group pushing to restore train service to Flemington

It may happen with help from the federal stimulus package

It’s been nearly 50 years since there was daily train service from Flemington to New York. Many of the tracks in this onetime rail hub, which saw 55 trains come and go in a day, were ripped up to make way for condominiums. Faced with congestion on Routes 78 and 202, Hunterdon has become the latest northwest New Jersey county to turn to history to solve a present-day dilemma. A task force of influential local community leaders, who nicknamed their group the “traveling circus,” are touting the idea of restoring passenger rail service from Flemington to New York City. “We don’t think we’re dreamers,” said Bob Benjamin, a lifelong resident of the Flemington area who included the town’s name in the title of his business, Flemington Furs. “We’ve got something very special here, something very real, and we will continue to work hard at it.”

The group met this month in Somerville with the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition and is scheduled to meet Wednesday with the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority in Newark. They envision commuters taking a train from Flemington to Three Bridges to Bound Brook, then to New York. The group acknowledges that their plan is at least 10 to 12 years away and their proposal is in the caboose, well behind other northwest Jersey plans to restore commuter rail service to Andover in Sussex County and Blairstown and Phillipsburg in Warren County. The Andover and Blairstown train would eventually head west to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, while the Phillipsburg train would end up in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

Under the Flemington proposal, a commuter would board a train at a station to be determined, perhaps at Liberty Village, Turntable Junction, Hunterdon Cut Glass or Hunterdon Village. The train would travel four miles along the Black River and Western line to Three Bridges, then travel 18 miles along new commuter rail tracks next to the Norfolk Southern line, where it would connect to the Raritan Valley Line in Bound Brook. Benjamin estimates a trip to Manhattan would take about 90 minutes in a bright train, a much easier commute than riding in a crowded bus.

He said the cost estimate is $1 million a mile for the new track along the Norfolk Southern line, for a total of $18 million; $550,000 per mile to upgrade the four miles of Black River and Western track, for a total of $2.2 million; and $20 million for a train station. The group hopes to secure federal and state money and contributions from the rail lines. Benjamin said the plan makes sense for Flemington because the rail lines and rights-of-way are already in place. “We envision a county seat with a rail system equal to its great history; a thriving Main Street with a great deal of foot traffic and excitement,” Benjamin said. “We see property owners investing in their homes and buildings because of the return in doing so. We see buildings that are in desperate need of repairs being replaced with beautiful new ones. We see increased real estate values and real estate values holding steady during difficult times, because the commuters will want to live and work in a town that has a commuter rail system.

“And we see citizens taking these trains, our trains, to Yankee Stadium, museums, theaters … concerts and parades. And, of course, we see fewer cars, less pollution and waste of fuel. This is what believe is the future.” He said using commuter trains would make better economic sense than expanding Route 202 and maintaining 15 more miles of cars. But he acknowledged it would take a great deal of effort and political will for the project to progress. Benjamin said that even though New Jersey has no funds available until after 2011, “What we have to do is position ourselves so that we are there when funds do become available.”

“The President Obama plan for creating jobs is all about rebuilding infrastructures,” Benjamin said. “In a populous state like New Jersey, that means investing in rail.” The Flemington group has the support of Hunterdon County Freeholder Matthew Holt. We in the state of New Jersey have got to recognize that transportation infrastructure is not solely about roads and bridges,” Holt said. He said 10 or 20 years ago, there was a mass population of drivers from Pennsylvania traveling to New York City. Today, he said, only about 6 percent that cross the border end up in New York City and close to 50 percent go to Hunterdon, Somerset, Morris or Mercer counties.

“Right now, what does not exist is the ability for anybody on the western side of the state to do anything but get in their cars,” Holt said. “And long range, that costs us money in roads and bridges and maintenance.” Somerset County Freeholder Peter S. Palmer, who chairs the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition’s board of trustees, said that without the ability to build new highways or railroads, the way to go is to better utilize existing rights-of-way. “So almost any of these (passenger rail) ideas will make more and more sense as time goes by,” Palmer said. New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Stephen Dilts said the department would be open to hearing more about the Flemington passenger service proposal. But he cautioned, “It’s early. There are a lot of coordination issues that need to be worked out before it becomes anything more than a concept.”

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