Opponents of rail line meet



pponents of the Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex commuter rail proposal are getting ready to fight.

Officials from three Middlesex County towns came together last week in Monroe to declare their opposition to the NJ Transit proposal in light of renewed interest in the plan.

"We must keep up our opposition, but this line will never be built," Middlesex County Freeholder Director David B. Crabiel vowed.

The NJ Transit plan under discussion would run commuter trains from Lakewood in Ocean County to the Amtrak Northeast Corridor line in the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick, Middlesex County.

The line would pass through Howell, Freehold Township, Freehold Borough, Manalapan and Englishtown before crossing into Middlesex County.

NJ Transit wants to use an existing freight line owned by Conrail for the service.

The proposal was dismissed in favor of enhanced bus service on the Route 9 corridor in 1996. However, the appointment of rail line supporter Jeffrey Warsh as NJ Transit director earlier this year has placed the languishing project back on the front burner.

Crabiel made clear that his county strenuously opposes the line.

"The Middlesex County Board of Freeholders continues to vigorously oppose the Monmouth Junction-Lakewood rail alternative," he stated.

According to Crabiel, community concerns regarding the line have not been adequately addressed by NJ Transit.

"It is unbelievable to me that Mr. Warsh can support such a proposal that adversely impacts the citizens of Middlesex County," Crabiel said. "Since Ocean and Monmouth counties are the ones that want this rail line the most, then they should be the ones to host either or both of the alignments that are possible. …and feasible."

Crabiel joined State Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-14) and officials from Monroe, Jamesburg and South Brunswick in speaking out against the line at a public meeting, held March 30 at the Monroe Township municipal building.

"We must fight this proposal with any means at our disposal," Greenstein said.

Greenstein said both she and fellow Assemblyman Gary Guear have "very strong opposition" to the plan but are in favor of mass transportation in general.

"A larger strategy is needed," she said.

Officials from the towns attended another meeting, making their case to U.S. Congressman Rush Holt (D-12) in South Brunswick the next afternoon.

Holt did not express an opinion on the project at a stop in South Brunswick prior to the meeting, but did say that he was available to the officials to discuss the issues involved in the proposal.

South Brunswick officials said Monday that the meeting was "pleasant" and that Holt seemed interested in their plight, asking questions about the issue.

During the open meeting, Monroe Township Mayor Richard Pucci said it was important to keep the arguments against the rail line "professional" and to leave emotion out of it.

"This issue is too big for partisanship," Pucci said, adding, "We have never heard any of the benefits (of the plan)."

Pucci said the coalition should dig in for a long fight and not dismiss possible legal action. "That is a last resort," Pucci said, but added that he wouldn’t "remove it from the table."

"It’s important to put a plan of action into effect. We have to fight this seriously," he said. "If we lie silent, a plan will be adopted and the money found (to start the line)."

Jamesburg Mayor Joseph Dipierro, who announced his opposition to the plan early last week, said the plan would devastate his borough and that a recent study by NJ Transit on the rail line’s impact to Jamesburg "was not satisfactory."

"I thought this was dead (in 1996)," Dipierro said.

Dipierro had asked for the study on the proposal’s impact on Jamesburg in July 1998.

The mayor said he requested the study, unveiled by the agency at two public meetings in the borough last month, in order to "best provide for Jamesburg" if the line was activated.

"The results of the study are not satisfactory," Dipierro said, adding that he is "not too proud to ask for help" in opposing the line.

Dipierro said NJ Transit dismissed running a dual track on the line or taking the line under the borough in a tunnel, as Dipierro asked.

"They said it was not feasible," Dipierro said.

A Conrail spokesperson has also said the company will continue to run freight trains on the line if the passenger service proposal goes through.

Monroe Township engineer Ernest W. Feist said he was concerned about the safety factor of the line.

"The safety impact is significant," Feist said, commenting that school buses cross the tracks in Monroe about 136 times a day.

Feist pointed to national rail statistics that logged 3,508 collisions at crossings during a one-year period. He said those collisions resulted in 431 deaths and 1,303 injuries.

According to Feist, almost half of the collisions took place at protected crossings similar to those in the proposal. Feist said there are more than 600 homes in Monroe that are adjacent to the line.

A rail lobbying group, the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP), reacted strongly on Sunday to the meeting and to Dipierro’s position.

In a publication to group members, the group maintains Middlesex County has no "legal or constitutional grounds to block through traffic" on the existing rail right of way.