Progress on rail line being made on paper

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 08/21/06

FREEHOLD Monmouth County planning officials expect to have new ridership figures for the proposed Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex rail line by the end of the month and plan to meet with NJ Transit officials in mid-September.

A report by DMJM Harris, a transportation consultant that is part of AECOM Inc. of Arlington, Va., is expected by the end of August, and county officials hope to review those figures with NJ Transit, said Bonnie Goldschlag, assistant Monmouth County planning director.

"We're hoping by mid-September to have another meeting with NJ Transit and go over the new ridership numbers and hopefully get their buy-in," Goldschlag said.

The numbers for Monmouth and Ocean counties won't be released publicly until county and NJ Transit officials meet, she said.  "We want them to have an opportunity to look at them and respond," she said. "We want to see if they agree or disagree."

The new ridership studies include the three routes being considered for the line, through Red Bank, Matawan or the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick, but it factors in a one-seat ride to New York through the proposed Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel.

Previously, trains on the Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex line would have ended up at Newark Penn Station, and passengers would have changed trains there to go to New York.

NJ Transit officials are waiting for new ridership information to continue working on a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed line.
"With our new ridership numbers, we will factor the impact of the THE Tunnel and direct service in and out of NYC," said Dan Stessel, NJ Transit spokesman. "We will also incorporate county information to provide the best estimates."

Ridership information from the counties also will include employment numbers and workplace locations, he said.

A timetable for completion of the draft environmental impact study and scheduling a public hearing is based on when NJ Transit officials receive
and review new ridership information from Monmouth and Ocean counties, Stessel said.

The idea of including ridership numbers for THE Tunnel as part of the Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex draft environmental impact study came from George Warrington, NJ Transit executive director.

"There was a lot of disparity between the (original) NJ Transit numbers and ours," Goldschlag said. "One recommendation from George Warrington was to hire an independent ridership consultant to work in Monmouth and Ocean counties' assumptions into the ridership numbers."
Working in favor of the counties is that the consultant, DMJM/AECOM, was recommended by NJ Transit and has worked with the agency, she said.

Monmouth and Ocean officials are still backing the Monmouth Junction route as the preferred alternative.  "McLaughlin and Associates did a phone survey in Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex counties, and 78 percent of the residents (who were called) favor the Monmouth Junction alignment," Goldschlag said. "To me that shows a lot of support for it."

Three municipalities in Middlesex County have opposed that alignment.  But the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers endorses the route.NJ Transit officials don't plan to select a route until after public hearings are held on the impact study.

That study will include the three potential routes, Stessel said. Once the study is complete, public hearings will be held. Once those comments are reviewed, a decision on one route will be made, Stessel said.

So far $6.7 million has been budgeted for that study, Stessel said. In 2001, a contract was awarded to Systra of Bloomfield, which has been working on the impact study since then, he said.

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