Train supporters rally for service in Ocean

LAKEWOOD — Highlighting its many benefits, advocates of rail came to the town square on Sunday to show their support for the Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex rail line.

Coordinated by the members of the Central Jersey Rail Coalition, Lakewood’s mayor and Township Committee, and the Lakewood Transportation Board, the rally promoted the hopes of many individuals and agencies that have been calling upon state transportation agencies for years to resurrect rail service starting in Lakehurst.

“Once again, the people of the Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex region have demonstrated their need for rail service,” said William Braden, chairman of the Central Jersey Rail Coalition. “We want rail service now.”

“We all know from personal experience that there are clear and compelling reasons to support the need for rail investment in this tri-county region, most notably traffic and increasing congestion on our roads,” said Ocean County Freeholder James F. Lacey, who serves as liaison to transportation. “We also know that expanding or constructing major roads is not an option in today’s regulatory climate. Rather, we seek to implement a practical solution along existing rail lines.”

Lacey noted that it is the ongoing support of Lakewood and its transportation board, the Central Jersey Rail Coalition, the Ocean County Transportation Board and a host of other individuals and agencies that keeps the proposal alive and moving forward.

“The Lakewood Township Committee and I are happy to support and host the MOM rally,” said Lakewood Mayor Charles Cunliffe. “Lakewood was once the destination of the famed Blue Comet, and it is our hope that Lakewood will once again be a destination for rail travelers.

“The explosive population growth of Ocean County in the last two decades makes public mass transit an imperative,” Cunliffe said. “While great transportation strides have been made in other parts of the state, Ocean County lags in alternatives to automotive travel for work and recreation. Rail service is that alternative; putting more cars, trucks and buses on Route 9 is not the answer.”

Advocates of the MOM line say that in addition to reducing traffic congestion and improving the environment by getting cars off the road, the rail line will improve the local economy by attracting new jobs and economic development, and make more of the region’s employers, medical centers, educational facilities and cultural attractions accessible to all citizens — and in particular, seniors.

New Jersey Congressman James Saxton, in a letter to rally coordinators, noted the MOM line also would enhance travel to Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station, Ocean County’s largest employer.

“We just had a successful recommendation for Lakehurst regarding the initial base realignment and closure list released May 13,” Saxton said. “The MOM line increases access to and from the base and, in my opinion, makes Lakehurst a more valuable asset to the Department of Defense. MOM certainly would enhance the base’s research and development mission.”

Advocates of the line are urging NJ Transit to move the study process along.

“If we refuse to act now, we will only have ourselves to blame as transportation in our region grinds to a halt,” said state Sen. Andrew Ciesla (R-Ocean). “It’s time for all municipal, county and state officials to board the train toward progress — it’s time for the MOM line to become a reality.”

NJ Transit is studying different alternatives to the proposed MOM rail line that would originate in Lakehurst. The first alternative would connect with the Jersey Coast Line in Red Bank; the second in Matawan. Ocean and Monmouth counties support the Lakehurst-to-Monmouth Junction MOM alternative.

According to a press release from Ocean County, the MOM route will provide greater congestion relief for overcrowded roads like Route 9 and the Garden State Parkway while providing public transportation alternatives to the fast-growing areas of western Monmouth and southern Middlesex counties.

“Lost in dissident arguments is the fact that inter-county transportation needs continue to increase every day,” said Ben Waldron, executive director of the Monmouth-Ocean Development Council. “It is estimated that approximately 25 percent of the entire population of the state of New Jersey will reside in Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean counties within the next decade. With that in mind, the need to move those residents around the central New Jersey region in a manner other than in automobiles becomes paramount in importance.

“Residents, retirees and tourists could mobilize themselves throughout the state to visit relatives, get to hospitals, courthouses and shopping districts, attend entertainment venues such as restaurants and theaters, and attend institutions of higher education in any of a number of counties in the state,” Waldron said.

NJ Transit’s current Draft Environmental Impact Study process builds on several previous efforts during the past three decades to assess transportation needs and to identify public transportation solutions for the region. The most recent effort, completed in 1996 by NJ Transit, recommended the implementation of a Route 9-enhanced bus alternative.

However, rail advocates note that it’s clear this solution does not adequately address the long-term needs of the region.

“Increased public transportation has become a necessity for Monmouth and Ocean counties,” said state Assemblyman Michael Panter (D-Monmouth). “The best way to satisfy this need would be to reactivate the Monmouth Junction line.”

“While Assemblyman Panter and I strongly oppose the Matawan and Red Bank lines, we believe that the Monmouth Junction line would greatly benefit our constituents and residents all over central New Jersey,” said state Assemblyman Robert Morgan (D-Monmouth).