InTransition Magazine
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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Letters to the Editor

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Light Rail, the Heavyweight Champion

To the Editor:

In 2000, the first cars of New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (HBLR) began running from Bayonne and Jersey City to a temporary terminal at Jersey City’s Exchange Place station. Within a week, ridership was about 3,500 passengers per day, as people began traveling on the first north/south rapid transit line in Hudson County.

Most public transit in New Jersey runs east/west because New York City was, and remains, a major generator of traffic. By 2000, however, times were changing because the Hudson County waterfront was in transition. The coastline, once host to a number of railroad and ferry terminals, was becoming a new destination for office skyscrapers, hotels and elegant apartment towers.

A new idea, at the time, was using light rail based on an old idea—trolley cars—that would effectively move the public through this busy community in greater volumes without the use of cars (and the need to park them). Jersey City was sliced into railroad yards for more than 100 years, so it was difficult to move north-south within it. The new route of the proposed light rail would move north-south with a speed that could not be matched by disjointed local roads. As I was involved early in the planning and development of the line, I would hear many comments, including, “Who will ever want to ride this thing?” and “This area is a wasteland” and “Who will want to move here?” I would tell these naysayers that in 10 years they would not be able to afford to live here.

What emerged was the HBLR. Here, the state of New Jersey got it right. The project would be the first Design, Build, Operate and Maintain transit project in the nation. This process allowed one contractor to build the entire project, eliminating much red tape that went with the traditional contracting system. The HBLR was on budget and on time.

Eight years later, the 23-station HBLR is carrying, at this writing, nearly 45,000 passengers a day. The line is closing in on the second-highest ridership mark within NJ Transit’s rail network.

Here, light rail proves that it is no “lightweight” when it comes to moving the masses, and that’s a lesson the public needs to learn. Light rail is the most flexible type of public transit and it can take many forms. The HBLR service is part streetcar, negotiating street with traffic at 25-30 mph; part interurban, moving 50-55 mph between stations with greater separation in suburban areas; part elevated train in urban congested areas; and part subway, where the Bergenline Avenue Station in Union City is 160 feet deep. This is what a light rail car can do, and today cities and states across the country are discovering just that. Since the opening of the HBLR, 12 other light rail and vintage streetcar lines have opened nationally, with more in the planning stages.

Public transit not only lessens traffic but also increases the available land space to be utilized by its residents, and this adds to cities’ ability to raise taxable income. Can anyone imagine what Jersey City and nearby areas would look like with more than 45,000 additional cars flooding in and out every day?

The HBLR now has to deal with a different problem: its own success. Ridership shows no signs of slowing down and as we are expanding, we will see additional passengers.

With future capacity improvements, HBLR would be able to handle additional riders and expand the line to service an even larger area. Jersey City and the towns along this light rail route are now the destination of choice. State and federal agencies that funded the HBLR are getting their money’s worth and more.

Today this urban/interurban system is our lifeline to the future. When it was conceived, no one could imagine 9/11, the increase in oil prices and the resulting increase in demand for public transit, but this light rail system has made it possible to meet these difficulties and holds the promise to move beyond them.

— James C. Greller
Hudson County (N.J.)
Transportation Authority
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