Published in the Asbury
Park Press 10/22/99
By TODD B. BATESand JASON METHODSTAFF WRITERS
NJ TRANSIT'S new chief yesterday strongly endorsed reinstating commuter rail service from central Ocean and western Monmouth counties, calling it "critical" to the region's mobility and economic development.
"I would like to see the Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex line go through," said Jeffrey A. Warsh, NJ Transit's executive director. "I think it's important. . . . It's the right thing to do."
All but three of the 75 towns that would be affected by the commuter line want it, Warsh said, and state officials are continuing discussions with officials in the three opposing towns -- Jamesburg, South Brunswick and Monroe, all in Middlesex County. The latter two have expressed vehement opposition to the plan, as has the Middlesex County Board of Freeholders.
State Transportation Commissioner James Weinstein, who joined Warsh at a meeting with the Asbury Park Press Editorial Board, said the state understands that the three communities have some concerns and "there may be ways to ameliorate those concerns, and we'll do it."
Warsh also said he liked the idea of rail service south to Lakehurst instead of Lakewood, an oft-mentioned starting point. If the necessary funds and support are in place, rail service could be up and running five years later, he said.
Warsh's comments mark a significant development in a long-running controversy, according to rail proponents. H. George Buckwald, who served many years on the Lakewood Township Committee and who also is a former Ocean County freeholder, first touted a proposal to revive passenger train service northbound from Lakewood in the 1970s. Passenger service ceased on the line in 1948.
Citing costs and projecting low ridership, NJ Transit brushed aside a passenger train proposal for the Monmouth-Middlesex-Ocean area in 1996 and instead endorsed a $67 million plan to expand bus service on Route 9. Warsh questioned population projections used in the 1996 study by consultants for NJ Transit. "My experience has been that the area is booming and it needs rail services," he said. "It needs it bad."
Officials from Monmouth and Ocean counties have long supported a reinstated rail line. But concerns of people who live adjacent to the tracks also have factored in, including worries about danger, particularly to children, noise, exhaust from diesel engines and reduced property values.
Although most of the track runs through undeveloped settings, people in Jamesburg, Monroe, the Dayton section of South Brunswick and now Englishtown are concerned. The line would cost about $280 million, not including the cost of a possible tunnel beneath or structure over the Northeast Corridor line in South Brunswick where the Ocean-Monmouth line would join the main line between New York and Philadelphia. "Quality of life improvements for the communities" also would cost extra, according to Warsh and Weinstein.
Reaction to Warsh's statements was generally positive yesterday. Jamesburg Mayor Joseph Dipierro said he's willing to discuss the issue. "The issues important to Jamesburg have to be addressed," Dipierro said. "We have four train crossings that have to be properly protected. We have children walking to school that have to be properly protected."
State Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., R-Monmouth, credited Warsh with working to break the logjam on the project.
"I've always felt to make this happen would require some quarterback in the administration, and you couldn't get a better one than Jeff Warsh," Kyrillos said. "No one knows the process, the politics or the players better."
Warsh, a former Republican state assemblyman from Middlesex County, was the borough attorney for Jamesburg from 1993 until 1996.
"It has to get done," Kyrillos said. "It's crazy that we're struggling to institute mass transit in one of the fastest-growing regions of not only New Jersey but the country."
Sen. Robert W. Singer, R-Ocean, proclaimed: "All aboard. . . . "
"They can never build enough highways and roads to meet demand," Singer said. "They are realizing that absolutely there is a need. You can't kid yourself to think it's not a problem."
Earlier yesterday, Weinstein toured a structurally deficient bridge on Mantoloking Road (Route 528) in Brick -- one of seven such bridges in Ocean County. The commissioner is promoting passage of a proposed $500 million bond act on the Nov. 2 election ballot. Half the money would go to repair or replace county and local bridges; the rest would pay for transportation projects statewide.
Monmouth County has 74 structurally deficient bridges owned by the county or municipalities, according to state officials.
The Brick bridge, which is too narrow, was built in 1938 and spans Barnegat Bay, Weinstein said. The total cost to replace it would be $20 million. Ocean County plans to use $4 million from the proposed bond act to match $16 million in federal funds, he said.
Staff writer James W. Prado Roberts contributed to this story.
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