New commuter rail service to link much of South Jersey to Philadelphia was the centerpiece of a $2 billion mass-transportation plan outlined yesterday by Gov. Corzine and transit officials.
Breathing new life into a long-discussed plan to restore rail service between Camden and Glassboro, Corzine promised, "Whatever it takes, we're going to get this done."
That plan calls for diesel light-rail trains to run 18 miles alongside an existing Conrail freight line to serve Glassboro, Pitman, Mantua, Wenonah, Woodbury, Deptford, West Deptford, Westville, Bellmawr, Brooklawn and Gloucester City. The line would connect to PATCO and River Line trains at the Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, where passengers could catch trains to Philadelphia or Trenton.
The mass-transit plan also calls for express bus lanes on highly congested Routes 42 and 55, and improved rail service on NJTransit's underused Atlantic City Line, with a passenger stop at PATCO's Woodcrest station in Cherry Hill.
The new light-rail line could be operational as far as Woodbury in five years and to Glassboro and Rowan University in six to 10, said John J. Matheussen, chief executive of PATCO and its parent, the Delaware River Port Authority. PATCO hopes to operate the trains, though that has not been determined.
South Jersey civic, business and labor leaders gathered outside Woodbury's 1883 train station to hail the promised return of passenger rail service after nearly a half- century.
"We hope this will bring things back to the way things were," said Woodbury Mayor Robert Curtis. "These were the original transit villages."
Corzine, who arrived at the gathering about 90 minutes late, noted that $500 million had been committed by the state for the plan, and he said he expected federal funding, as well.
The rail line to Glassboro is expected to cost about $1.3 billion, and Matheussen estimated the cost of express bus lanes on Routes 42 and 55 at $200 million. Costs for the Atlantic City rail line upgrades have not been determined, Corzine and transit officials said, but could run to $500 million or more.
Previous proposals to restore rail service to Gloucester County and beyond have never made it off the drawing boards. This time will be different, said the politicians who gathered yesterday.
"This is not the first time people have had their expectations raised," said U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., Camden). "But this is the first time it is going to get done."
Matheussen said construction could start in 2010 or 2011 on the light-rail line. Hearings will be held, starting next month, around the region.
Studies still need to be done on bus rapid transit plans for Routes 42 and 55 and for improvements to the Atlantic City rail line. Even there, though, Corzine said construction would be years, "not decades," away.
The light-rail route unveiled yesterday was the one recommended by the state Office of Smart Growth and the state Planning Commission. DRPA planners had offered five alternatives along three routes.
Woodbury residents were generally optimistic about the promised return of trains to the Gloucester County seat.
"I think it's going to be good. It will raise up house values and maybe lower taxes with more people coming in," said D.N. Bunch, who was with his wife, Karin, on the sidewalk near the old station. "It'll be a lot easier to get to the sports venues in Philadelphia. And it'll take some cars off the road."
With two children, ages 6 and 14, Karin Bunch said she wanted to make sure they would be safe from passing trains.
"That's my only concern. This is a walking district," she said. "I want to know more about the safety."
Frank Fletcher, owner of the Nut House gift shop, said he hoped a return of passenger trains would do for Woodbury what they did for his old hometown on Long Island.
"Our property values were among the highest in the nation because we were an easy commute to New York," Fletcher said. "Here, we would be an easy commute to Philadelphia. And, as a shop owner, the more affluent my customers are, the more affluent I become."
Matt Wood, a student at Gloucester County College, said train service would make it easier to get to the Rutgers campus in Camden, where he hopes to transfer. And a station in Woodbury would speed his trips to Philadelphia, he said.
"Now, if I want to take the train to Philly, I have to drive to Ferry Avenue" in Camden. "But this is right in my back yard," Wood said.
Students and faculty at Rowan would also benefit, said college president Donald J. Farish.
"Now, you have to have a car," Farish said. "We don't want to have to pave the university. We will strongly encourage people to use the train. ... It might even be in our interests to subsidize the cost" of service.
Tony DeSantis, president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, said his group would have preferred electric trains that could have provided a "one-seat" ride to Philadelphia on PATCO without a transfer in Camden.
But he said, "If they can get the rails down here, that's a good thing. Really, they're just putting back what they took out. They're basically restoring what they had in the past, which was diesel service to Camden."