When Gov. Corzine came to Woodbury's historic train station last month to announce his plan for a $1.3 billion light-rail line from Camden to Glassboro, the reception was warm and enthusiastic. Local, state, and national officials hailed the return of rail service as the route to prosperity, clean air, and smooth commutes.
But last week, when 125 area residents turned out at Woodbury Junior-Senior High School to examine the plans, the reaction was decidedly mixed.
Congestion, parking, crime, and costs were among the chief concerns voiced by opponents of the plan. "It's a waste of money," said Michele Tobin of Sewell. "I believe in public transportation, but I don't believe it needs to be for a small group of people in small towns. Where are people going to park in these towns to go to the light rail? That $1.5 billion should be put to better use. We need public transit to get to Philadelphia. We need better roads to go north."
Could it be 1996 all over again?
That was the year that Gloucester County opposition killed the Camden-Glassboro leg of a light-rail line that was to run from Trenton to Glassboro. The northern portion, ending at Camden, was completed in 2004 as NJ Transit's River Line.
This month, proponents and opponents of the southern rail line are squaring off again as the Delaware River Port Authority takes its latest plans on the road. Open houses were held in Camden and Woodbury last week; there will be sessions this week in Blackwood and Glassboro.
The new rail plan, similar to the 1996 plan, is the centerpiece of a $2 billion mass-transportation proposal for South Jersey backed by Corzine.
The port authority is the lead agency for the proposal, which also calls for express bus lanes on highly congested Routes 42 and 55 and improved service on NJ Transit's underused Atlantic City Line, with new passenger stops at PATCO's Woodcrest station in Cherry Hill and at the Atlantic City airport.
The rail plan envisions diesel light-rail trains running 17.4 miles alongside an existing Conrail freight line to serve Glassboro, Pitman, Mantua, Wenonah, Woodbury, Deptford, West Deptford, Westville, Bellmawr, Brooklawn, and Gloucester City. At the Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, the line would connect to PATCO trains to Philadelphia and River Line trains to Trenton.
The line would restore passenger service to a route where it was abandoned in 1971.
For supporters like Patrick Mulligan of South Harrison, the rail line would mean a chance to get out of his car for his daily trip to Camden, where he is assistant director of the Heart of Camden, a nonprofit housing redevelopment agency. "We need good commuter rail lines where people live," he said Thursday at the Woodbury session. "The future of transportation has to be trains, hopefully." He said the line would reduce pollution from cars and slow highway-induced suburban sprawl.
Rod Pello of Deptford, who runs an engineering office in Woodbury, said a rail line "would make recruiting employees a lot easier. Now, if they have to sit in a car for a long time to get here, there's a reluctance to do that."
Pello said a rail line could "rejuvenate a lot of towns like Woodbury" and increase residential property values. "Most businesspeople I know think it would be a very good idea," he said.
Larry O'Donnell, a cabinetmaker from Woodbury said he would "definitely" ride a local train, which he said he liked as an "environmentally friendly" alternative to driving.
"I use the PATCO High-Speed Line now to go to Philadelphia, but I have to drive to Woodcrest to get on it."
Opponents like Ron Brittin of Mantua Township have been down this path before.
Brittin, a Republican candidate for Gloucester County freeholder, was a leader in 1996 of Citizens for Alternative Rail, a group that opposed the light-rail plan.
"The draw for people here is Philadelphia, and this line doesn't go to Philadelphia. It goes to Camden. No one wants to go to Camden," Brittin said.
"This is being done to people in these towns by Trenton and Washington. That's what I'm going to talk about this election cycle."
Brittin and other opponents argue that any rail line should be built along Routes 55 and 42. The state Planning Commission considered those corridors but endorsed the current proposal as best for relieving highway congestion and revitalizing towns. Craig Rudisill, a retired teacher from Sewell, doesn't buy it. He said that "55 and 42 is where there is the need. This won't help in Washington Township, which is the biggest in the county."
Ken Atwood, who lives in Woodbury and works at a building-materials distributor in Camden, called the proposal "impractical."
"Going down Route 42 would have been better; that's where the congestion really is. But this was cheaper."
Stephen M. Sweeney, director of the Gloucester County freeholders and majority leader of the state Senate, said the politics of mass transit in the county had changed since 1996, making construction much more likely this time. "In 1996, everybody folded their tents and ran. Every elected official was running for cover," said Sweeney, a Democrat. "There was such a fear of the unknown."
He blamed the administration of Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for not fully supporting the earlier effort.
Now, Sweeney said, the River Line shows what light rail is all about, and Gloucester County residents can see what they would be getting.
Corzine, a Democrat, has committed $500 million from the state Transportation Trust Fund for the project, and Democrats dominate local government. "We're not running and hiding from them this time," Sweeney said of rail opponents.
Local opponents said they were counting on the backing of Christopher J. Christie, Corzine's Republican opponent in the governor's race this year. A spokeswoman for Christie said Friday that she did not know the candidate's position on the rail line.
To learn more about
the South Jersey transportation plan, visit www.patconjexpansion.com/