NJ Transit has enlisted outside help in kick-starting the long-delayed construction of a train station on its Northeast Corridor line in North Brunswick, designed as the anchor of a built-from-scratch neighborhood called Main Street that’s currently under construction.
A deal in which NJ Transit turns over the station project to the Middlesex County Improvement Authority was hailed by state and local officials during a press conference Wednesday at the site, a former Johnson & Johnson complex along busy Route 1, where nearly 1,900 housing units, plus stores and restaurants, are planned.
“Let’s get a shovel in the ground,” said state Sen. Bob Smith, to the applause and cheers of local officials.
Two years ago, the state’s beleaguered mass transit system tapped a $50 million appropriation from the Transportation Trust Fund for the project, but it never delivered on the station. Now, as part of the deal unveiled Wednesday, Middlesex County will also kick in another $20 million.
“Then when things still weren’t moving as fast as every local town always wishes, the county saw our need and came together and said, ‘Let’s work together and try to find a way to make this happen,’” said North Brunswick Mayor Francis “Mac” Womack.
NJ Transit said the deal with Middlesex County represents a new model for the transit agency. “What it means is, NJ Transit doesn’t step away,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the state transportation commissioner and chair of NJ Transit’s board. “But we become better partners. We become better collaborators. And when we do that, we’re going to get, naturally, a better product.”
The station would break up 14 miles of track, now NJ Transit’s longest stretch without a station.
Gov. Phil Murphy said the stop was expected to entice residents to take the train and not the highway. “It’ll take some steam — please God — off of Route 1, and all the challenges in that respect.”
Jonathan Frieder, managing partner for Garden Homes Development, said his company has already paid $11 million for highway improvements on Route 1.
“So the train station’s much more than a platform. It involves circulation. It involves roadways, storm water management,” he said.
Wednesday’s progress comes after a long wait for local officials.
The idea behind Main Street — a so-called transit village, or self-contained residential community with walkable shopping pegged to a train station — arose more than a decade ago. Garden Homes Development bought more than 200 acres from Johnson & Johnson and estimates the completed village could support 8,000 residents.
In 2013, then-Gov. Chris Christie announced that he had approved the construction of the station, which he said would “shorten commutes, reduce congestion and pollution and improve access to Trenton, Newark, New York City and other destinations.”
“This took forever. I mean, we could’ve done this, this time last year,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, one of the state officials on hand Wednesday. “You know, we appropriated this funding through legislation back under the Christie administration. And it’s just taken a long time get it going.”
“It stalled because there was, between NJ Transit, Amtrak, a number of the projects that weren’t moving at all,” said Kevin Corbett, the agency’s president and CEO.
The train station project was originally linked with another NJ Transit plan, the Midline Loop — which would have provided a quick turn-around for trains. Now the agency has put that work on the back burner until it can find enough money to move ahead.
It will move forward with the so-called Delco Lead and County Yard project — designed to store train cars and equipment.
“This is indicative of a lack of long-term planning and also a product of the funding problem that NJ Transit has,” said Janna Chernetz, New Jersey policy director for the influential Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit advocacy group. “There’s a development right here along a very busy corridor, but there’s no public transportation to support it as planned. So this project needs to move along.”
Despite the progress, the station is still a ways off. It’ll take two years of planning, permits and designs before construction can begin, officials say.