NEWS, SPORTS, COMMENTARY, POLITICS for Gloucester City and the Surrounding Areas of South Jersey and Philadelphia

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George R. Murphy Jr., Union Electrician for Local 439/351, GCHS Alumni and Football Coach

NJ Transit Studies for a Light Rail Line

By Jack Sheppard

(written in  2005)

Almost ten years ago in the fall of 1996 New Jersey Transit performed a “Major Investment Study” (MIS) in our region. Its stated purpose was to determine the feasibility and desirability of constructing light-rail mass-transit facilities from Trenton to Glassboro through Camden. The intent was to use the old existing rail bed built in the 1800’s. The estimated price tag for the system was $1.4 billion.

However even prior to the MIS study the idea of reintroducing rail passenger service to the tri-county area was not new, having been proposed many times by the Delaware River Port Authority starting as far back as 1936.

The 1975 DRPA study entitled “Mass Transportation Development Program of the Delaware River Port Authority” was extremely comprehensive consisting of six documents covering the topics Transportation and Regional Planning, Engineering Investigations, Design Guidelines, Transportation System Design and Guidelines, Economic Evaluation of Transportation Improvements, and Recommended Transportation Development and Financial Plan for Implementation.

The 1975 study was very competently done being financed in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA). It was completed and released in December, 1975 and performed by Gannett Fleming Corddry and Carpenter, Inc. and Bellante, Clauss, Miller and Nolan, Inc., a Joint Venture of world-class engineering firms with excellent credentials.

The study examined every foot of the existing old rail facilities and concluded with the recommendation that a high-speed rail line in the median of Route 55 be utilized instead of using the old tracks.

The reason given for this recommendation was that “Although a Glassboro Line alignment following the PRSL Millville Branch has been studied, this alignment has been proven inferior on the basis of capital costs and disruption to the local community.”

Furthermore The DRPA MIS study was quite clear that in exchange for the hundreds of millions of federal dollars the new facilities would cost, it would most certainly be required to comply with federal transportation regulations of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) caling for complete coordination between rail transit and bus service within a region as a requisite for funding assistance.

UMTA required that all types of transportation be considered including heavy-rail rapid transit service, light rail transit systems, standard type bus service, as well as transportation service by demand activated bus systems, personal rapid transit systems and other alternative transport concepts even mentioning taxi services. Most of the more recent studies have been exceedingly weak concerning the use of alternative facilities.

And now the planning process has returned back to where it started with yet another study by the Delaware River Port Authority. Only this time there are significant differences. For example this is the first time that alternatives using the rights of ways of major highway Routes 42 and 55 are included in the study. Also the cost estimates have been made much more realistic with cost predictions of $77 to $96 million per mile for use of the existing rail route. Why are projected construction costs for the existing rail right of way so high? Because to counter previous criticisms about interfering with auto traffic at grade crossings the tracks wil be sunk into deep pits, or possibly even elevated, to provide unobstructed roadway crossings. Without question this form of construction and operation will have a devastating impact on the region, especially the residential areas of the communities it travels through. This aspect of the current DRPA plan is not being trumpeted but once local officials and residents become aware of it there will be a great outcry against the proposal.

Unfortunately this new study also appears to be repeating the mistakes of past studies by failing to recognize and address the need for cross-county corridor roads and other forms of mass transit to get the majority of people in Gloucester County to where they want to go, which for many is neither Camden nor Philadelphia.

Statistics developed during the 1996 MIS study revealed the following;

1. Employment growth predictions, Gloucester County 31.5% as opposed to Philadelphia at 6.6% and Camden 5.4%. (Pg. 1-8) indicating the need to improve transportation means within the Tri-County Region, not toward Camden and Philadelphia.

2. In 1990 12% of Gloucester County residents worked in Philadelphia and this was expected to increase by 10% by the year 2010. (Pg. 1-11) However the question that needs asking is “how close are these jobs to a high-speed line station?” University City in Philadelphia for example is substantially beyond reasonable walking distance.

3. Auto trips into the region are expected to increase by 44% in next 30-years as employment sites on the “periphery” continue to attract workers living outside the region. (Pg. 1-12) Not mentioned was that these jobs will not be in Camden City or Philadelphia but in Camden County, Gloucester County and Burlington County.

4. Automobile ownership in Gloucester County was expected to increase by 51% by the year 2010 “unless means are provided for reduction of auto trips, including their diversion to transit.” (Pg. 1-13) Unfortunately the DRPA is now apparently disregarding what its previous 1975 study recommendations, which were alternative traffic improvement methods such as new roads, demand activated bus systems, etc.

The recurrent theme I took away from the 1996 MIS study public meetings was that a great many of the people who expressed themselves felt that any new public transportation should be located closer to the more heavily populated communities such as Washington and Monroe Townships, and the northwestern part of Deptford Township where the auto traffic is the heaviest and currently causing the most severe problems.

Placing light rail in the centerlines of Route 42 and/or Route 55 are not perfect answers, however they would provide the common sense component of placing some form of public transportation facilities where the bulk of the population is located.

However building passenger rail in the medians of the north-south highways should not be considered the final solution to the overall transportation needs in the region.

As mentioned earlier and as demographic statistics bear out, the bulk of the people in our region do not travel to just the Philadelphia and Camden downtowns, they work and shop and play in areas east and west of these highways. In places like the Cherry Hill, Moorestown, Echelon and Deptford Malls. They live in and travel to the residential areas that have sprung up in the suburbs, and to parks and playgrounds that are scattered throughout Gloucester County. These destinations cannot be reached by any existing or proposed rail facilities. You can only get to there by private automobile or public bus.

It seems as though neither the money nor the political fortitude has been available in the past to tackle some of these difficult projects. At least they never seem to be mentioned as possible solutions. But now when project cost estimates in the range of $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion are being bandied about, shouldn’t we be thinking about the overall transportation needs of the region, and not just those of commuters to Camden and Philadelphia?

In closing I point out there have been at least four of these studies that I have been personally involved in starting in 1976. For anyone interested in the transportation problems in our region and concerned about the outcome of the studies I assure you it takes a lot of time to follow the study progress, attend public meetings, write letters and keep local officials up to date on what is happening. During those thirty years of my involvement auto traffic in the region has reached a crisis stage and public transit has failed to keep pace with the needs. I suggest all public officials, whether federal state or local, take heed that this study may be the last before we either start rationing time on the highways, or are forced to resort to bicycles as a means of getting around.

I urge the Delaware River Port Authority and our regional governmental representatives to concentrate on rail lines only in the two major highway rights-of-ways, Routes 42 and 55, and to give serious thought to improvements and additions to the east west roads throughout the region, and to other forms of public transportation as well.

Let us make this the last study before taking action. The time to act is now

Prepared and submitted by;

Jack C. Sheppard, Sr.

Wenonah, New Jersey 08090

History of Past Studies

1936

Study recommending four-branch system of passenger rail to Glassboro, Clementon, Haddonfield and Moorestown with through service to Philadelphia

1946

Another study updating the 1936 study and arriving at the same basic conclusions

1948

Second update completed once again validating the desirability of extending mass-transit services east and south of Camden

Result

“Public support and financing were not sufficient to bring the proposals into reality”

1952

The Delaware River Port Authority supplanted the Delaware River Joint Commission. DRPA immediately initiated a survey of mass transportation in southern New Jersey (1954). Final report issued in 1956

1956

The study advocated construction of a three-branch system with routes to Moorestown, Ashland and Woodbury Heights, a portion of the previously advocated four-branch system.
The study also recommended a tunnel under the Delaware River with a rail connection to Suburban Station in Philadelphia. Because of the high-cost, then estimated at $242 million, no action was taken.

1959

Review of the 1956 study by the City of Philadelphia to determine if the proposed services could be obtained at a lower cost. Proposed using the high-speed line on the Ben Franklin Bridge with single-track extensions to Moorestown, Ashland and Woodbury Heights.

1960

DRPA study recommending just the Ashland route be implemented using the Ben Franklin Bridge route

1962

Design and construction commenced on the Philadelphia-Lindenwold system after almost thirty years of studies and recommendations

1969

Philadelphia-Lindenwold high-speed line operations commence

1975

DRPA “Mass Transportation Development study completed and issued with recommendation for enlargement and extension of Philadelphia-Lindenwold high-speed line system

1996

NJ Transit issues Major Investment Study recommending essentially the same passenger rail extensions but with use of “light-rail” equipment instead of “heavy” Philadelphia-Lindenwold equipment

No mention in study that any of the aforementioned previous studies by DRPA and other agencies had been incorporated or even reviewed

However NJ Transit did refer to a document entitled “Canals and Railroads of the Mid-Atlantic States, 1800-1860” and the “New Jersey Indian Site Survey” from 1940



Conclusions:

1. Per Major Investment Study (Pg. 1-17);

a) Project Goals and Objectives

i) Reduce vehicle miles of travel by diversion from automobiles to transit.

2. Per DRPA 1975 Study

a) “An investigation of the impact of increased transit patronage on highway traffic was also conducted. It is estimated that three years after implementation of the new service each six new transit passengers will cause one vehicle to be removed from the bridges serving interstate traffic. However the long-term effects will be negligible because the transit line will attract new residents who require new interstate trips, some of whom will not be adequately served by the transit facility for all purposes.”

(The author served on the Wenonah Borough Council from 1962 through 1990, the last 24 years as mayor. Headed up the sewerage regionalization of Gloucester County and cut the ribbon to start it up in 1973.  Headed the water regionalization effort being appointed by democrat freeholder director Jim Atkinson even though he has been a republican all of his adult life).

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