Tucked behind a shopping center on a congested New Jersey road is a little-used train station on a little-used railroad.
An average of 142 riders boarded at the Cherry Hill Station on the typical workday, a pittance compared with the almost 3,000-a-day that use Cherry Hill's other rail stop, PATCO's Woodcrest Station. Since September, the Atlantic City Line station hasn't been used at all.
NJ Transit shut down the line as part of its frantic push to install a federally mandated rail safety system before an end-of-the-year deadline. The transit agency says the Atlantic City Line will reopen in January, as promised. If it does, communities along the nine-stop route between Philadelphia's 30th Street Station and Atlantic City will again grapple with an old problem: how best to take advantage of this transit line.
Cherry Hill thinks it may have an answer. A master plan approved last month described the train stop there as a hidden gem.
"It hasn't been forgotten by us," said Chuck Cahn, the township's mayor. "We always advocate that if they would run that line more often, there would be more users, and if there were more users, they would run that line more often."
Cherry Hill's master plan envisions the station as a connector to Philadelphia with commuters using ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft to get there from home. That will require cooperation with NJ Transit, though, and Cherry Hill's vision clashes with the transit agency's in some critical ways.
Southern New Jersey communities increasingly see rail stations as valuable assets. NJ Transit's River Line, which opened in 2004, has helped spur development in some of the towns along the light rail between Trenton and Camden. Apartments have been built near both the Collingswood and Westmont PATCO stations in the last five years. Cherry Hill is considering a 370-unit residential project accompanied by commercial development near the Woodcrest PATCO station.
The Atlantic City Line has not attracted the same development interest as PATCO even though, the master plan notes, that line's station is more centrally located in Cherry Hill than the Woodcrest station.
"I would say the Atlantic City Line is not the focal point of that in terms of transit resources," said Andrew Svekla, from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission's office of smart growth.
While ridership was small when the line last operated — about 2,000 a day on the entire Atlantic City Line — there are reasons to think the route could become dramatically more important. The area around 30th Street Station is a growing employment hub, and the Atlantic City Line's direct service to that destination could become a more attractive alternative from South Jersey than PATCO, which requires a transfer to the Market-Frankford Line to reach 30th Street.
More than 50,000 are now employed by University City's academic institutions and hospitals, according to the University City District. The Schuylkill Yards development alone is expected to bring 1.6 million square feet of labs, offices, shops, and homes to land adjacent to 30th Street Station. Atlantic City, meanwhile, is seeing a resurgence. Two new casinos added 7,000 jobs to the city last summer, a new Stockton University campus opened there in September, and a headquarters for South Jersey Gas is under construction.
More than 5,700 people in Cherry Hill now travel to Philadelphia for work each day, according to 2015 U.S. Census numbers, the most recent available.
The Atlantic City Line, however, wasn't designed to support commuters. Trains came along once every hour and a half to two hours.
"If you miss the train, you miss getting to work on time by hours," said Lorissa Luciani, Cherry Hill's director of community development. "It's very ineffective if you use it for commuting, for employment."
When the line returns to service, NJ Transit officials said, there are no plans to run trains more frequently.
NJ Transit has the reputation in South Jersey of not being much interested in the region's rail service. That opinion was bolstered when the Atlantic City Line became one of the few services in the state shut down to accommodate safety equipment installation.
"There's a lot of people that are very disturbed over what has occurred here with NJ Transit," said Dennis Levinson, Atlantic County's chief executive, who has also been frustrated with the line's minimal use. "New Jersey, in general, and South Jersey, in particular, got the shorter end of the short stick."
NJ Transit is willing to discuss improvements and does promote the Atlantic City Line, but the costs of running a railroad limit how much it will do. The Atlantic City Line lost more than 500 daily boardings in the last two years, according to NJ Transit data, and costs about $23.5 million a year to operate. Passenger fares cover just 17 percent of that.
"The backdrop for any consideration of service and facility improvements is what potential additional ridership and revenue they will generate," said Nancy Snyder, an NJ Transit spokesperson. Snyder noted the railroad had been losing riders before NJ Transit reduced the service from a train an hour to 12 a day out of Philadelphia in 2011.
Cherry Hill's station has been problematic since it opened in 1994. Observers immediately complained about its location, set far back from busy Route 70 and nearly invisible behind what is now a ShopRite. The railroad's route, which veers north to the Pennsauken Transit Center before crossing the Delaware River, makes it a half-hour trip to 30th Street Station. That's longer than a PATCO trip to Center City.
The township hopes to improve the station's profile with better signage and a promotional campaign, but the most significant change sought is an at-grade crossing to allow pedestrians, cars, and cyclists a path over the tracks.
A Costco and a Duluth Trading Co. are planned for 26 acres of open space opposite the Cherry Hill Station, and the township mandated the grade crossing at the tracks be included in the construction plans and paid for by the developer. The access road, designed to run parallel to Redwood Avenue, would provide a direct connection for cars, pedestrians, and cyclists over the tracks dividing the station from the nearby Garden State Park development, which includes more than 1,600 condominiums and apartments.
"I could never understand why you couldn't get from our area to the railroad station," said Dan Cirucci, who lives at the Plaza Grand Condos at Garden State Park and regularly uses the line to get to Atlantic City.
The township had hoped to have the crossing in place within a year, officials said, but there are obstacles. The Costco development is held up in litigation, which must be resolved before the grade crossing could be built. The track crossing also needs state approval. The New Jersey Department of Transportation approved the plan in December 2016, township officials said, but NJ Transit controls all construction in its right of way. The transit agency is opposed to at-grade crossings, Snyder said, due to concerns about collisions with cars. NJ Transit prefers overpasses or underpasses, she said.
Despite NJ Transit's reassurances that the Atlantic City Line will return to service, officials in Cherry Hill remain wary and acknowledge that their optimism about the Atlantic City Line's potential is offset by the reality that living up to that promise would require investment from the state.
"We would be the ones to lead the charge," Cahn said, "but right now there is no charge to be leading."