Elwell vetoes railroad yard expansion Meadowlands mayors support Secaucus’ claims of danger

In his capacity as chairman of the Meadowlands Mayors’ Committee, Mayor Dennis Elwell issued a rarely used veto to oppose approvals that would allow the Norfolk Southern rail company to expand Croxton rail yards in Jersey City.

Elwell urged other mayors on the commission to reject the proposed expansion because it posed increased traffic and danger to drivers in Secaucus and Jersey City.

The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission voted to approve the expansion earlier this year, but according to an agreement with various municipalities, the mayors’ committee has a right to veto such a proposal. The committee consists of 14 area mayors.

Elwell said the company will have to increase traffic and safety measures before he would change his mind.

Norfolk Southern is one of the four remaining freight rail companies in the U.S. They plan to expand the freight train focus in Jersey City near the Secaucus border. The company itself is expanding, having acquired a little more than half of Conrail two years ago.

The last veto of a project by the mayors’ committee occurred in the early 1990s by then-Secaucus Mayor Anthony Just. That veto was originally overturned. Elwell, however, said he has the support of other mayors that would allow him to keep the veto in place until he gets action on his concerns.

“This has the potential to put hundreds of heavy trucks and container cars on already congested local streets,” said Elwell. “Without substantial traffic improvements, I can’t support this plan.”

Elwell said County Avenue, Paterson Plank Road and even the center of Secaucus face a continuous stream of trucks from the existing Croxton Yards and the U.S. Postal facility on County Road. “Those trucks congest traffic, pollute the air and create safety problems now,” Elwell said.

The initial impact would be in the 1st Ward, where New County Road is located. First Ward Councilman Christopher Marra the downtown section is already subject to too much truck traffic. Michael Grecco, the other 1st Ward Councilman, said the council needs to do everything possible to keep local streets safe, saying that the changes could produce as many as 1,800 additional truck trips through Secaucus daily.

“All of North Jersey’s traffic can’t be emptied onto Secaucus roads,” Grecco said.

But the 3rd Ward would also be impacted, said 3rd Ward Councilman John Reilly, who noted that the increased traffic would create a dangerous situation on Meadowlands Parkway as well.

“County Road, Paterson Plank Road and Meadowlands Parkway already have more than their capacity for heavy truck traffic,” said Fred Constantino, the other 3rd Ward councilman. “The addition of traffic from the proposed Turnpike interchange and the Norfolk Southern railroad [extension] would worsen air and noise pollution and further congest our streets.”

Elwell said the existing rail crossing on new County Avenue already cuts off the south end of Secaucus from emergency vehicles for substantial time during the day. With the addition of New Jersey Turnpike Interchange scheduled for construction in the same area, conditions will only worsen, the mayor said.

“The situation is bad now,” Elwell said. “With these changes it will become intolerable and dangerous. I have to protect my community.”

Elwell said substantial improvements to the rail crossing and other traffic changes must be made before he can support any expansion of the rail company’s operation. Elwell, who owns and operates a trucking company, said his only concern is for the residents’ safety.

“Obviously, I’m not knee-jerk opposed to trucking operations, but they must be done in a safe manner that takes into account the need to the community,” Elwell said. “Until there is a commitment to the needed safety improvements, I can’t support this proposal.”

The area needs a bridge

According to the resolution from the Hackensack Meadowlands Municipal Committee, which opposes the rezoning of lands where the rail yard is located, “these areas need special protection from air and water pollution and special arrangements for the provision of facilities for the disposal of solid waste; …the ecological factors constituting the environment of the meadows and the need to preserve the delicate balance of nature must be recognized to avoid any artificially imposed development that would adversely affect not only this area but the entire state.”

The Mayors Committee has asked that the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission submit, prior to the final action, codes and standards formulated by the commission, the district master plan, and any amendments to its development and redevelopment plans and improvement plans.

Trains from the Croxton Yards throughout the eastern half of the United States, from Canada to Florida and from the Eastern Seaboard to the Mississippi River.

Over the last two years, ongoing improvements to Croxton have snarled traffic moving in and out of southern end of Secaucus. Last year, Hudson County instituted a study of the area and concluded that bridges were needed over rail crossings in order to accommodate traffic in and out of the Southern section of Secaucus.

A lot going on

South Secaucus, according to County Engineer Bob Jasek, has been experiencing steady development without a major transportation problem; yet over the last several years, the situation has worsened, with several extremely large projects slated for the area.

The expansion of the rail yard, the construction of Allied Junction rail transfer station, and the impending opening of a new New Jersey Turnpike exit (see sidebar) will create major demands on the roadways in the area, Jasek said.

In 1999, the Secaucus Planning Board concluded that the area needs new long-term solutions for traffic congestion plaguing that part of town. Elwell said the Secaucus Police Department has been videotaping traffic problems in the area over a period of time to show the backup caused by the trains.

“We had the police videotape traffic when the trains are crossing,” Elwell said, noting that he would lift his veto of the expansion when the rail company produced a plan to address traffic.

Elwell said the company is seeking to build a bridge over County Avenue in order to help transport rail cars to a piece of vacant land north of the yard, but seems unwilling to help provide for a bridge along New County Road. State Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco was instrumental in getting money to fund similar bridges over rail intersections near Secaucus Road and Tonnele Avenue as well as Paterson Plank Road near Route 1 & 9 to overcome the massive traffic backups that occurred there. Trains containing hundreds of boxcars have often stranded rush hour commuters for in excess of an hour in those places.

Currently, traffic has backed up along County Avenue while waiting for trains to finish their maneuvers in and out of the Croxton Yards.

Elwell met with rail officials in early May to try to hammer out an agreement, but he said he would not budge on the issue of a bridge.

“They can promise me the world, but until they provide a bridge for County Road, I won’t lift that veto,” Elwell said. Turnpike offers $5.5 million for county land

In order to allow the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to start work on a new interchange for Secaucus, the Hudson County Freeholders have moved to allow access to county land.

The Turnpike Authority is moving ahead with the plans for the construction of the new Secaucus interchange. A portion of the interchange will located on county land in the vicinity of the old correctional facility near Laurel Hill Park.

The Turnpike has offered the county $5.5 million for 10.145 acres of land. The Turnpike Authority has the right to condemn the land and take it, paying the county the assessed value, but has agreed to continue negotiations for a possible higher sale price because the county has allowed right of entry for work to start. This is a two-phase process that starts with the Turnpike taking the land. The money offered will be deposited in a bank account, waiting for the final negotiations.

The county resisted selling the land to the Turnpike while a temporary jail remained located there. The county had maintained a temporary jail for state prisoners, and collected fees from the state. The county resisted the Turnpike offer previously because the state paid too much for the county to give up. When the state did not renew its lease last year, the county reconsidered the Turnpike’s offer.

Freeholder William O’Dea questioned the process, saying that it is obvious that the county had already started negotiations.

Joseph Sherman, counsel for the County Executive’s office, said formal negotiations had started on March 27, but that county officials had met with Turnpike officials previously.

Bob Jasek, the county engineer, said the process has been going on for about two years, and would involve the construction of an overpass that would allow cars and other vehicles to exit the Turnpike in Secaucus.

“Municipal officials did not want these vehicles exiting into local streets,” he said. “So the Turnpike Authority will be constructing ramps that will bring that traffic out onto Meadowlands Parkway.”

The interchange is being constructed to provide a way for cars and buses to access the Secaucus Transfer Rail Station currently under construction near Laurel Hill Park. This facility – commonly called Allied Junction – will connect many of the rail lines through Northern New Jersey and provide access direction into Midtown Manhattan. The train station is expected to open in 2004. Once off the Turnpike, traffic would then access the rail line through a newly constructed extension to the existing Seaview Drive. This road would pass through the Croxton Rail Yard in Jersey City.

Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell said some questions still exist concerning who would be responsible for the Seaview Drive extension since it crosses two municipal boundaries.

“We’re hoping the county will take over one section,” he said.

Although Laurel Hill County Park is partially funded through state Green Acres funds, this section being taken over is not part of that parcel. The county owns approximately 100 and for acres in South Secaucus. Laurel Hill Park takes up the approximately 45 acres. Twenty acres have been set aside for a shooting range, although the fate of that range is now in doubt. Sections of the County property are wetlands and cannot be constructed on.

Jasek said he had plans and some preliminary sketches of what the Turnpike exit will look like. O’Dea raised some concern over the possible impact of the construction and the finished project on access to the park.

Jasek assured him that arrangements had been made to keep access to the park open both during the construction and later when the Turnpike exit had been completed.

Jasek said that the Turnpike Authority needed to take some land from the area of Laurel Hill to build the interchange. While the Turnpike Authority has to appraise the land, the county has to reappraise to determine what the land is worth.

Freeholder Brian Stack raised some concern about a second resolution that awarded the county’s appraisal contract to Hugh J. McGuire, a Jersey City real estate consultant. He asked if this contract had been put out for bid or proposal.

“I believe it may be possible to have gotten this cheaper than $15,000,” he said.

Stack claimed that Union City, where he is mayor, had faced a similar problem and had found another appraiser who could do the work much more cheaply. Stack said the county should have looked for more proposals.

O’Dea said seeking proposals would not likely delay the deal since this is vacant land. He said that he believed that it is less difficult to appraise this land that would an office building or a hospital. The appraisal would take into consideration other parcels of land in the area that might have been sold recently, and their price. He also said the appraiser would look at what the possible best use of that property should be. – Al Sullivan


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