Republished courtesy of New Jersey Monitor
Almost since the start, when train service stopped on the old Boonton rail line in 2002 and the weeds and wildlife began taking over, plans formed for what the narrow 9-mile tract snaking through Essex and Hudson counties could be.
Everyone from environmentalists to politicians envisioned a park that would serve as a sanctuary for residents of New Jersey’s most crowded region.
A rails-to-trails greenway would forestall development, link the region’s scattered recreational spaces, and give hikers, bikers and others a safer alternative to roads, supporters said. They likened it to New York City’s popular High Line, anticipating the boon it would be to communities it crossed.
But five months after the state paid Norfolk Southern Corp. $65 million for the site, a bit of buyer’s remorse has set in for some who watched the deal unfold.
Some fear the fortune it could cost to develop what’s known as the Essex-Hudson Greenway and wonder how the state will support another park when it can’t afford improvements or even basic maintenance at its nearly 50 existing parks and forests. Some have raised concerns about contamination and other environmental issues, warning the corridor winds through sensitive wetlands and paving it could cause flooding.
Others say the deal itself raises red flags about pay-to-play politics, pointing to political contributions Norfolk Southern made to the national and Democratic governors’ associations — groups that Gov. Phil Murphy has led in one capacity or another.
“In concept, it sounds great,” said M’ke Helbing, president of Metrotrails, which advocates for trail preservation and connectivity. “But it ultimately will be an absolutely ridiculous amount of money for what we’re getting.”
Devil’s in the details
On paper, it looks like the state got a bargain.
A formal appraisal in 2021 valued the 138-acre site at $73 million — that’s $8 million more than the state eventually paid for it.
But that appraisal did not account for any environmental contamination that might require remediation, even though the appraisers acknowledged “a high probability” of pollution.
“Rail corridors are well known for their potential environmental contamination. Solvents, petroleum products, and other chemicals used in the operation and maintenance of the trains can find their way into the underlying soil below and around the tracks,” the report states.
“We have not been provided an environmental contamination assessment for the property,” the appraisers continued. “While we understand there is a high probability that contamination may be present, we have assumed that there is no adverse effect of environmental contamination on our valuation of the subject corridor.”
The Open Space Institute, the conservation group that negotiated the state’s deal with Norfolk Southern, commissioned environmental contamination assessments in 2020.
Assessors found that six miles of the line contained historic fill — materials like construction debris, metals, and dredge spoils that were used for decades as fill before being rejected as hazardous — that exceeded state soil remediation standards and are expected to contaminate area groundwater. The entire line also had railroad remnants and related contamination that would require remediation, assessors said.
Some rails-to-trails projects raise funds by scrapping old rail materials.
But the state’s acquisition deal tasked Norfolk Southern with removing all tracks and ties, with the rail company keeping any salvaging proceeds, said Caryn Shinske, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Walking the old Boonton line
Wheeler Antabanez is no accountant, but he’s walked the abandoned line several times and figures the state will have many more millions to pay before the greenway becomes a reality.
An urban explorer who lives in Montclair, Antabanez wrote a book and produced a 50-minute movie last year, both called “Walking the Old Boonton Line.” In both, he documents the decrepit state of the corridor, its history, and some of the challenges its developers face.
Besides remediating contamination, Antabanez expects the state also will have to repair several battered bridges along the line.
At the Secaucus-Kearny border, for example, any bikers or hikers who try to follow the old Boonton line across the Hackensack River will end up swimming because the swing bridge built more than a century ago there has been permanently open since 2002 to accommodate boating traffic.
“They’re going to have to build a new bridge there if they want to cross there,” Antabanez said. An early plan for the greenway routed users south to cross the river on the pedestrian part of a new Route 3 bridge, but that bridge hasn’t been built — and has no timeline for completion.
Work to prevent flooding also could prove costly, Antabanez said.
The appraisal says about 55% of the corridor lies in areas of Jersey City, Secaucus, and Kearny with a high risk of flooding, with 76 acres of the property encumbered by wetlands or other environmental constraints.
“The old Boonton line is covered in gravel that just soaks up water like a very long sponge. So as they pave it, all that water that used to be soaked up into the sponge is going to go right into the streets,” Antabanez said.
Shinske, the Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, said the state will have a flood plan, with $5 million allocated for stormwater design. Another $20 million has been earmarked for general development-related costs, she said. Those expenses, combined with the $65 million land acquisition cost, add up to $90 million.
But that won’t be the end of spending. The total cost to complete the project is “yet to be determined,” Shinske said. The department plans to hire a consultant this spring to begin work on community engagement and design, and that work will inform a master plan, she said.
American Rescue Plan funds covered about $20 million of the purchase price, with the rest coming from NJ Transit, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Legislature.
It’s unclear how the state will pay for whatever it ultimately will cost for the greenway to be completed. Officials are “exploring available sources of funding, including state and federal funding and the potential for philanthropic engagement,” Shinske said.
Antabanez expects the greenway will become a budgetary black hole.
“I don’t know what bridges cost, but they do not come cheap. This $90 million budget is a joke,” he said.
Money pit ahead
Whatever its cost to complete, the spending won’t stop there, one environmentalist warned.
Jeff Tittel, a longtime environmentalist with the Sierra Club of New Jersey, wonders how the state will maintain the park, given how many state parks have languished in disrepair for years.
State funding for parks has flatlined, and the parks system has a $500 million backlog of capital projects. Parks have been long understaffed, with staffing falling 28% since 2006 while parkland acquisition rose 13% since 2008, according to a 2022 state lands management report.
“We have historic buildings in our state parks that are falling down. We have bathrooms that are closed because we don’t have the money to fix them. We have historic items stored in boxes because we have no place to display them,” Tittel said. “We have serious problems maintaining our existing parks. So in expanding and building new parks, we need to find a source of money. I’m just trying to be a realist.”
Officials aim to open the “first phase” of the greenway by the end of 2025 but don’t have a timeline yet on when it will be fully open.
They expect 4 million people will use it each year, which will make it one of the state’s busiest parks. Liberty State Park in Jersey City, in comparison, is New Jersey’s busiest, with 5 million visitors a year.
The property is rail-banked, which preserves the corridor for potential future rail development, Shinske said. Reactivation of freight rail service happens infrequently though, because it would require the railroad to foot the cost of rebuilding the rail line and reimburse the state for acquisition and greenway development costs, she said.
The Department of Environmental Protection is in the process of acquiring reactivation rights from Norfolk Southern so that the state can control whether to reactivate rail service, she added. But officials now have no plans to do so, she said.
While some look ahead in dread at the greenway’s costs, one watchdog can’t help but look back.
Craig Holman, the architect of New Jersey’s pay-to-play law, says anyone following the dollar should be concerned about Norfolk Southern’s political contributions.
The corporation gave $217,000 to the national and Democratic governors’ associations since Murphy took office in 2018, company contribution records show. Murphy now chairs both the National Governors’ Association and Democratic Governors’ Association, and he was the national group’s vice chair in 2021 and the Democratic group’s chair in 2020.
“It is pay-to-play politics,” said Holman, Capitol Hill lobbyist on ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance rules for the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen.
Under New Jersey’s 2004 pay-to-play law, it’s illegal for companies to enter a state contract worth more than $17,500, or a redevelopment agreement, if they have made a political contribution to the elected officials responsible for awarding the contract. The law also prohibits reportable contributions to a gubernatorial candidate or any state or county political action committee within 18 months prior to entering a state contract.
Still, Norfolk Southern’s political contributions are legal under the law because the national and Democratic governors’ associations are national groups.
Holman said they should be illegal because they violate a provision of the law prohibiting “indirect” contributions. He has raised this issue before, but New Jersey legislators have shown little appetite for closing loopholes in the law. An effort led by former Sen. Loretta Weinberg in 2010 to tighten the law ultimately sputtered out.
“Quite frankly, I would like to see the law expanded to prohibit government contractors from making campaign contributions altogether,” Holman said.
Norfolk Southern donates to the Republican governors’ association and GOP candidates too.
“Our contributions to the governor’s associations have remained consistent over the years, and we do not make contributions to these associations with any specific projects in mind,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker said.
The company also more than doubled its lobbying spending in New Jersey in the years before the greenway deal was sealed, spending more than $771,000 since Murphy’s first term began, state records show.
Spielmaker said the company didn’t lobby any state officials on the sale of the line.
Murphy spokesman Bailey Lawrence declined to comment.
Joe Donahue is a spokesman for the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
“Anyone who thinks there’s been a violation is entitled to file a complaint,” Donohue said.
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