Public input sought on rail line

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/24/02
MIDDLETOWN -- State transportation officials said yesterday they plan to hold public hearings this fall on a proposed plan to return passenger rail service to the Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex line.

The five to 10 hearings, to be held in the three counties over several months, would begin in October and signal that the proposal is moving forward.

"The process was stalled for a while, and we need to bring it to closure," said NJ Transit Executive Director George Warrington.

The hearings and a draft environmental impact study are required if New Jersey wants to grab a share of the federal transportation dollars for the $400 million project, said state Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox during a news conference held here yesterday.

The press conference also included several state legislators and Monmouth County freeholders, all of whom support the rail project, saying MOM would help relieve traffic congestion and would be an asset for the county's economy.   Proponents of the project have said that the region can't rely on traffic-choked Route 9 to serve a growing population, and the rail line would give residents access to employment centers they can now reach only by car.

But the line doesn't have unanimous support. Some residents in Middlesex County oppose the plan.  The $4 million environmental impact study, which is scheduled to be completed in 2003, will be conducted by Systra Consulting Inc. of Bloomfield, Essex County. The study will look at the routes for the rail line, potential ridership, capital costs, infrastructure improvements and the environmental impact, according to a department statement.

Two months ago, Fox came under fire for reportedly telling county planners that MOM was a project he could "easily ignore because there was no clear expression of need or a common consensus of opinion."  Yesterday Fox said he meant that the state needs to solicit local input on the project.

"There's a commitment by this administration to put more investments into mass transit," he said.

The three commuter rail lines that will be studied are: A 40.1-mile freight line between Lakehurst and Monmouth Junction, Middlesex County, where MOM trains would travel onto the Northeast Corridor line to Newark. Passengers traveling to New York or south of Monmouth Junction would have to transfer to another NJ Transit train. A 27.7-mile freight line between Lakehurst and Red Bank, where trains would operate north on the North Jersey Coast Line. Passengers traveling to New York or south of Rahway would have to transfer to another train. A 35.8-mile abandoned freight line between Lakehurst and Matawan, where trains would then operate north on the North Jersey Coast Line and Northeast Corridor. Passengers would have to transfer trains to travel to New York or south of Rahway.

Other alternatives to these proposals will also be studied, Warrington said yesterday. Last year, a DOT spokesman said that although NJ Transit doesn't think the old Freehold-Aberdeen rail route is a viable option, it will be reviewed as part of the study.

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