December 12, 2019

NJ: Hunterdon officials ride NJ Transit's Raritan Valley rails in hopes of improving them - MassTransitMag.com

It’s a “chicken and the egg situation.” 

That’s how goHunterdon Executive Director Tara Shepherd described the train service currently available in the Hunterdon County, which is limited to the Raritan Valley Line utilized by thousands from Union and Somerset counties in comparison to hundreds from Hunterdon.

Shepherd and 11 other county residents and officials gathered at High Bridge Station in November to board the 90-minute 9:18 a.m. eastbound train to Newark Penn Station for a Ride the Rails event orchestrated by the county Office of Economic Development.

According to New Jersey Transit Annual Ridership Data dating October, an average of 22,200 passengers were serviced weekdays on the Raritan Valley Line between July 1, 2018, and June 20, 2019. Of these passengers, an average of 212 boarded one of four stops in Hunterdon County, which includes stations in High Bridge, Annandale, Lebanon, and Whitehouse Station.

Those present at the event discussed ways to improve rail service in order to incentivize more individuals to travel to and from the county via the train, including reducing the length of rides, adding service on the weekends, and extending service hours later into the night.

County Director for the Office of Economic Development Marc Saluk said that, as a result of the event, the 78/22 Coalition -- a division of the office formed by nine communities in the county -- will consider drawing up a position paper “to take official stances and begin to formally interact with New Jersey Transit to implement change."

“(The paper) would comprise of something the group would like to see, a prioritization of issues that we would want to talk to the state about, maybe a timeline for working with New Jersey Transit -- just basically a set of action items moving forward to try ... to implement things that could positively affect commuter rail service and therefore its impact on Hunterdon County,” Saluk explained.

In addition to Shepherd and Saluk, those who attended the Ride the Rails event included Program Specialist for the office, Mary Evers; Data and Technology Coordinator for the office and newly elected Clinton Township Council member Ross Traphagen; county Chamber of Commerce President Chris Phelan; goHunterdon Board President Ron Monaco; and, Assistant Regional Manager for New Jersey Transit Chris D’Elia.

Present elected officials included County Freeholder Susan Soloway; High Bridge Mayor Michele Lee; Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach; Clinton Town Council member and Clinton Economic Development Committee member Reilly Karsh; Bethlehem Township Mayor Paul Muir; and Clinton Township Mayor John Higgins.

Monaco said the ride enabled those in attendance to be put “in the flesh of what we’re talking about.

“I think it’s great that they’re taking the ride to understand what we’re up against," Monaco said.

What is Hunterdon County up against?

In the 90-minute ride to Newark Penn Station, the officials discussed a number of improvements they would like to see implemented along the Raritan Valley Line to increase its usage at stations in the county.

While the majority of other stations along the Raritan Valley Line feature between 24 and 27 eastbound rides on an average weekday, only seven are offered in Hunterdon County.

Traveling west from Newark Penn Station, 26 rides are offered on a regular day at the majority of stations on the line. For Hunterdon County stations, that number falls to 11.

Monaco said the most feasible improvement would likely be increasing the number of available express lines, or lines with skipped stops, to the Raritan Valley route, which would reduce the length of the trip by approximately 10 to 15 minutes.

“I think one of the most difficult issues is the length of time it takes to go from High Bridge to Newark. So, to the extent that we can introduce more skip-stopping, so trains don’t stop at every station but skip certain stations ... more of that would make the commute a lot more tolerable,” Monaco said.

In terms of providing additional service to Hunterdon, Monaco said that New Jersey Transit should take advantage of the new siding and signaling changes implemented at Whitehouse Station a few years back to increase the number of service lines in that region.

“Sometimes (there are) layovers where (the trains) are just sitting in Raritan, and would cost nothing but the fuel if they could just get out to Whitehouse and then turn around and come back in," Monaco explained.

Monaco also discussed the practicability of the Raritan Valley Line expanding its service lines to function on the weekends, as the route currently only makes stops at Hunterdon County stations from Monday to Friday.

“Weekend service means true costs ...(because) they would have to have the crew run those trains. But, my sense is that that would be less expensive than adding another train set. So I think weekend service is a good thing to go after,” Monaco said.

Lee said if the coalition is going to focus on “low-lying fruit,” the addition of weekend service should be prioritized.

“High Bridge is full of weekend activities that would attract people from the city, and from wherever. If they could bring their bike onto the train, and ... ride our trails and meet up at a couple of the restaurants, at the brewery that we have, and easily hop on the train and go back to the city, that would be huge,” Lee said.

In addition to weekend service lines, Kovach expressed an interest in routes with later service hours, which she said would encourage more than commuters to use the Raritan Valley Line.

As it stands, on a regular weekday the latest eastbound train a passenger can take from High Bridge departs at 4:52 p.m. The latest westbound train returns to High Bridge at 12:36 a.m.

“If there’s the opportunity to take the train down to Somerville, down to the stadium to watch the Patriots, it’s right there. It’s just not convenient. Because usually when the game’s over, there’s not a train back,” Kovach said.

Shepherd said that she has spoken to young engineers of Exxon Mobil, one of the county’s biggest employers, who currently live in Jersey City and Hoboken and have expressed an interest in traveling to Hunterdon via train if it were more practical.

“It’s not simply the Eastbound direction. This idea about being able to have employees come in, have businesses choose Hunterdon County because of a proximity to New York or to Newark or New Hope or whatever the case may be, that’s equally important ... So it’s not only about getting people to New York, but getting people to Hunterdon County locations as well,” Shepherd said.

What can Hunterdon do right now?

Monaco said he believes the coalition, with help from officials throughout the county, should pull together information regarding all of the housing units available or soon to be available along the Raritan Valley Line and present it to New Jersey Transit.

Stating that these units total in the thousands, Monaco expressed his belief that if New Jersey Transit employees were aware of new housing opportunities in Hunterdon, they would be more inclined to increase their presence in the region.

“What I would like us to do is ... talk to New Jersey Transit to say, ‘It’s time that we change the schedule that’s been in place since 1900,'” Monaco said. “'That we actually recognize the growth that’s happening, all this Transit-oriented development, along this line. We ought to react to it, we ought to be trying to capture some of those folks as they start to move in. And in order to do that, we really have to have the service in place.'"

Echoing Monaco, Shepherd said that demonstrating potential market in Hunterdon is vital to counteracting the low number of residents currently boarding the Raritan Valley Line.

“The folks at New Jersey Transit are looking at these numbers (of passengers). So in order for Hunterdon to be competitive, being able to offset some of these numbers I think would go a long way,” Shepherd said.

Citing information provided by the state Department of Labor, Phelan said currently under 5% of the Hunterdon workforce, or approximately 7,000 county residents, travel regularly to the city.

Muir said that in his experience, the number of commuters living in his area has declined over the last twenty years.

“I just know that there are a lot less people in Bethlehem that commute to the city because they’ve aged out, and that new buyers are coming from other areas and other careers and other choices because (the city) is not ideal for them,” Muir said.

Voicing her support for Monaco’s suggestion, Kovach expressed her optimism that many individuals who move into the new units will be commuters.

“The houses that are being built are not single-family homes; they’re multi-family units, and that will find retirees, obviously, but also younger people that are probably doing the commute into Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken. Because that’s where they work, that’s where they play, but it’s cheaper overall to live near here," Kovach said.

Karsh said younger people will not be drawn to Hunterdon “unless they get the amenities they want.

“My friends still live in New York City, and they haven’t moved out of New York City because they don’t want to buy a house in the suburbs and go out to eat without getting an Uber if they want to," Karsh said. “They could afford to buy a house in Hunterdon, but they don’t want to lose all the options they have in the city. So they keep paying rent that’s more than my mortgage.”

They rode the rails -- now what?

In response to the suggestions proposed by those in attendance of the Ride the Rails event, New Jersey Transit Senior Public Information Officer Nathan Rudy said that the agency is “always open to reviewing these ideas ... to maximize service for each line and stop.”

“There are many variables to consider when looking at service changes. This includes crew and equipment availability, yard capacity, fueling logistics, operating agreements with other railroads and matching service to ridership in cost effective ways,” Rudy said.

“As we continue to rebuild our capabilities, we will continue to adjust schedules to best serve our customers through coordination with the municipalities in which we operate,” he added.

Regarding Monaco’s suggestion to present the total developmental housing units along the Raritan Valley Line to New Jersey Transit, Rudy said that the agency is “always interested in working with our local and county governmental partners regarding planned or proposed developments.”

Echoing Rudy, Shepherd emphasized the significance of establishing a dialogue with New Jersey Transit in order to implement change within the county.

“Just being part of the conversation is going to be important -- to make sure New Jersey Transit knows that Hunterdon really has an interest in getting improved service,” Shepherd said.

Caroline Fassett can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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