NJ Transit plans for Hudson
A proposed extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail into Bergen County has hit another hurdle that will delay planning on the project for at least two more years, outraging local politicians who have spent three decades fighting to expand the service north.
The Federal Transit Administration decided Monday to rescind a "notice of intent," which was granted in 2007 and gave NJ Transit the green light to begin working on a required environmental report for the project, known as an environmental impact statement.
The FTA rescinded the notice because of "all-encompassing changes in the project design and environmental impacts," it said, including changes in flood plains, stormwater management, cultural resources, hazardous materials, traffic and parking, and air quality.
Assemblywoman Shama Haider said she is "furious" about the FTA's decision.
"We are asking them to build a few miles of railroad extension to serve 100,000 commuters in our district, in Bergen County — how long has the United Stated been building railroads? Nearly 200 years," Haider said. "Studies were done way back when and done again and updated again."
Whenever the FTA has "asked for an update, NJ Transit has done the update, pushed the time further," she said. "We’ve gone through hoops to get them all the information they have."
Haider has made the light rail project's expansion into Bergen a priority since being elected to office in 2021, sending letters to NJ Transit officials for updates and calling in to the agency's monthly board meetings to keep the project top-of-mind.
Bergen leaders, including County Executive Jim Tedesco and Commissioner Tom Sullivan, also decried the decision in statements issued Wednesday afternoon.
"It's well past time for New Jersey Transit, the Federal Transit Administration, and others to step up and commit the immediate funding required to keep this project on track," Tedesco said. "We cannot afford to let bureaucracy and indecision derail the progress that our residents need, and I will continue to fight until Bergen County residents have the transportation infrastructure they deserve."
On Wednesday, Haider said she called Donald Burns, the FTA's regional director of planning and program development, for answers about the decision, but no one picked up and she has not yet gotten a call back.
The FTA has not responded to a request for comment from NorthJersey.com.
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The FTA's decision comes as a surprise, because as recently as May, NJ Transit officials assured lawmakers inquiring about the project that the agency planned to send updated information later this year for its environmental report, first submitted to the FTA in 2018.
However, in April, an FTA spokesperson told NorthJersey.com that the FTA had "paused" its environmental review because "no local financial commitment has been demonstrated."
"As a result, FTA has elected to pause our Environmental Impact Statement review, as the project has shown no substantial progress toward any potential federal funding, as local commitments would be required for any such funding," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Planning for the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail — originally designed to be a 20.5-mile line from Bayonne to Ridgefield, connecting Hudson and Bergen counties — began in 1993. NJ Transit constructed 21 miles of rail and 24 stations in Hudson County between 1996 and 2011.
Ideas to bring another roughly 12 miles of rail into Bergen County have languished, because money never surfaced to fund the remaining portion, plans about what kind of rail system should go there changed, and some communities pushed back on the proposals.
U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, whose district now includes Englewood, which would be the last stop on the Bergen extension, expressed outrage over the FTA's decision to rescind the environmental review.
"NJ Transit already submitted a full environmental impact statement, but now, at the last minute, the USDOT wants them to do it again," Gottheimer said, referring to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees all federal transportation agencies, including the FTA.
"This is right after they shockingly approved New York's congestion tax without a full environmental review despite preliminary findings showing that it will increase carcinogen-filled air pollution in Jersey," Gottheimer said. "It's a complete double standard."
Gottheimer is referring to a new tolling system proposed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to charge drivers to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, as a way to improve air quality and support its public transportation system. The MTA received Federal Highway Administration approval in June to begin designing how the tolling system would work, but New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy sued the FHWA last month, saying the program warranted a more thorough environmental review because of potential pollution increases in New Jersey.
The MTA predicts that congestion pricing could lead to a 0.88% increase in the number of vehicles that pass through Bergen County, which could increase pollutants between 0.40% and 0.82%, one of the driving factors described in the lawsuit.
"USDOT claims to want more mass transit, but is putting up random roadblocks left and right," Gottheimer said.
NJ Transit spokesman Jim Smith said the agency has directed its consultant to begin "immediately developing a new scope of work and updated construction and completion timelines" for the light rail extension into Bergen County.
"Fortunately, much of the information in the original [supplemental draft environmental impact statement] is still relevant and can be used as a starting point" in a new environmental impact statement process, he said. The process, which should take about 24 months once started, will reevaluate existing conditions, including flood plain and resiliency mitigation, project alignment and public engagement, Smith said.
"While that timeline estimate is very preliminary at this point in the process, we continue exploring all potential avenues, including constructing the extension in phases, while identifying funding options such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 to advance this critical project," he said.Related: