Down by the River (Line)

Post date: Feb 24, 2012 11:33:27 PM

Eric Jaffe has a piece on The Atlantic Cities about New Jersey’s River Line and the influence that the perception of crime has on transit and economic development.

I happen to have visited some of the River Line towns recently – and know a bit about the tangled history of the thing – so I thought I would share a few comments.

First, a bit about the history. The River Line was not built as a typical transit “new start,” with years of planning studies, alternatives analyses, environmental assessments, and public outreach sessions behind it.

The River Line was born of four circumstances:

1. The political leadership of New Jersey felt they “owed” a transit project to South Jersey, the less populated (and to them, underappreciated) part of the state.

2. The towns along the route of the obvious choice for fixed guideway transit, a light rail line from Mount Holly to Moorestown to Camden, rejected it.

3. Conrail put its old freight line from Camden to Trenton up for sale.

4. The political establishment of Burlington County, with ties to landowners and developers in the northern part of the county, thought the River Line might work for them.

There was no way this process would meet the tests for federal New Starts funding, so the New Jersey Legislature agreed to fork over state money.

The result of these unorthodox steps (or shenanigans if you prefer) has been a line that has been remarkably successful as a transit line, although it has yet to be successful in reshaping land use and stimulating sustainable economic development.

Some of the towns along the route, including Burlington and Bordentown, have some decent redevelopment happening near the station. Others…not so much. Riverside, a promising little town with some historic architecture, looks to me like it’s actually gone downhill in the past few years. (It was at the Riverside station that one of the locals said to me: “So, are you going to ride the Crime Line?”)

By the way, Eric Jaffe says the River Line is a light rail line with some of the properties of a commuter rail line. A better way to put it is that the River Line represents a new incarnation of an old transit form: the interurban line!