Following a legal challenge, the Jersey City Council voted for a second time on Jan. 13 to adopt an ordinance to fund the purchase of an old railroad embankment to run a new rail line there.
The issue of the Sixth Street Embankment has been bouncing around in the courts for years with legal rulings issued on behalf of either side, although over the last two years, the city appears to have gained significant ground.
The funding authorization is largely a legal maneuver to allow the city to take over the property – the site of a defunct freight train line – from property owner and hopeful developer Steve Hyman.
Council members Michael Yun and Richard Boggiano voted against the ordinance, saying it could cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.
Several residents also spoke against the ordinance, including Yvonne Balcer, who called it a “rail line to nowhere.”
The embankment consists of six stone and earth trestles, each about the height of a two-story building, along Sixth Street from Marin Boulevard to Brunswick Street in downtown Jersey City. They no longer carry rails.
Hyman bought the property from Conrail in 2005 for $3 million with the aim of constructing residential units on the abandoned railbed. Since then, he and the city have been fighting over a definition of the railway that may determine who ends up owning it.
“The closer we get to winning this, the louder we hear those in opposition.” – Rolando Lavarro
But the city, under the laws regulating how the embankment can be transferred to a new owner, must actively seek to develop the property for rail use first. So the new ordinance seeks to acquire the property for continued freight rail and other compatible purposes, including passenger rail, open space, and trail and historic preservation.
The ordinance sets aside $5.7 million to acquire the property.
The issue has pitted some residents against others
Don Wilson, who represents construction workers in Jersey City, urged the council to allow the property to be developed, saying it would bring jobs.
But other residents in the area want the property turned into a park, similar to the High Line in New York City, a former freight railway that was successfully converted into a passive park.
Hyman said the city’s strategy – applying for federal government permission to use the right-of-way for rail – is only a ploy that will allow the city to take control of the property. He believes the city will change the use once it has possession of the property.
Yun questioned the wisdom of the ordinance, claiming that the city would have to reconstruct bridges over existing streets, and then rebuild the line. He estimated the total costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Council President Rolando Lavarro said Yun was “picking numbers out of thin air.”
Balcer, a frequent commenter at council meetings, said the cost is too much.
“This is a pipe dream,” she said. “You can’t even get together to fix flooding in Jersey City, but you’re willing to spend money to take someone’s property.”
She said she wanted to hear the total price tag for the take over and eventual park construction.
Members of the Harsimus Branch Embankment Coalition supported the ordinance, saying it will allow those who support the construction of a park their opportunity to make their case before federal authorities.
Lavarro said the ordinance is not designed to build a railroad, but to get a hearing in front of federal authorities where the city hopes to prove that the property was illegally acquired by Hyman.
At the core of the city’s legal argument is the belief that Conrail should have offered to sell the land to the city before seeking out a private citizen. Boggiano said Conrail did, and that the city, under then Mayor Bret Schundler, opted against the purchase.
Schundler, however, said the city was never offered the property, but that another local developer had obtained rights to develop the site while Conrail still owned it, prior to Hyman purchasing the property in 2005.
“The developer had just finished another project and was looking to do something else,” Schundler said during a telephone interview. “He showed us some plans. It looked like a good project. But there wasn’t a lot of community support so we passed on it.”
A long and winding (rail)road
A relic of Jersey City’s industrial past, the embankment supported the Harsimus Branch of a Pennsylvania Railroad freight line that carried goods to and from the waterfront from 1902 through the 1970s. Conrail ceased to use the railway in 1996.
The city argued that Conrail’s sale to Hyman was not properly done. The city and a coalition of preservationists argued that the property fell under guidelines that required the sale to be reviewed by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), and then put out to bid.
Hyman and his legal team argued that the embankment was a rail spur, not a main line, and therefore exempt from the regulations dictating how an abandoned rail line must be disposed of. If defined as a rail line and not a spur, then the STB would have to review it.
The city has attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement with Hyman.
In 2005, Conrail sold the Harsimus Branch Embankment to eight commonly-owned limited liability companies for development without going through the federal abandonment process that is required of rail lines.
In 2006, the STB ruled that Conrail erred by not getting authorization from the STB to legally abandon the embankment, saying Conrail should have offered the property to public entities before it was sold to Hyman.
Believing that the Embankment was subject to rail abandonment laws, the city, along with the Embankment Preservation Coalition and Rails to Trails, requested that the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that has authority over rail abandonment, intervene.
This new ordinance could allow the city makes its argument before the STB, and eventually allowing the city to take control of the property.
Lavarro said the city is close to winning its case.
“The closer we get to winning this, the louder we hear those in opposition,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.