.Trails for now to save a route

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/15/01
An Asbury Park Press editorial

The miles of long-unused railroad tracks that run through Toms River, Barnegat and Lacey present a challenge -- and some beneficial possibilities -- to those trying to determine the best use of these old rail beds. Whatever choice is made should not preclude the possibility that the right-of-way might be needed again some day for its original use.

The six-mile stretch that runs through Lacey, which the township purchased in the 1980s, is at the center of a dispute between advocates of a rails-to-trails project and others who want at least some of the rail bed turned into a road. Ultimately, Lacey's residents will decide, in a yet-to-be-scheduled referendum approved last week by the township committee.
The Lacey Rail Trail Committee and its supporters argue for preserving as parkland and trails all 41 miles of the former Central, Tuckerton and Pennsylvania/Conrail tracks in Ocean County. The other idea, championed by Committeeman John C. Parker, is to create a road along a one-mile stretch of the rail bed to relieve congestion at Lacey Road and Route 9, possibly with walking and biking trails alongside.

The right-of-way also has been discussed as an area of future commercial development. Putting retail stores or other development along the stretch eventually could add new traffic tie-ups.
Rail advocates, including the Central Jersey Rail Coalition, point out that the Toms River-Lacey-Barnegat segment of railway could someday be used again for light rail travel. It could serve as a vital link on a proposed rail line that would connect Ocean, Monmouth and Middlesex counties and provide some relief to the Route 9 corridor. Without a Toms River-to-Barnegat link, the proposed line would end in Lakehurst -- hardly a relief for drivers in the county's southern end who might otherwise use the train.

For the referendum to be fair, voters must be offered a choice among several scenarios: preserving all six miles as trails, building the road with or without development, or leaving the segment as is for future rail use.

Ocean County's early development and success depended on rail service. If it is to have any link other than congested highways to other parts of the region in the future, some of form of rail must remain an option. Using the old rail bed as footpaths for now makes sense, as long as the right-of-way is preserved.

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