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Freeholders Take Action to Strengthen Rail, Road Transportation Systems in County

Specially Written for The Westfield Leader and The Times

The Union County Board of Freeholders last week continued its series of moves geared towards improving economic development within the county. The latest action includes the activation of some 12 miles of freight railway along the previously abandoned Staten Island and Rahway Valley Railroad lines.

The plan also includes the creation of a Transportation Development District whereby developers would be responsible for any infrastructure improvements that are needed to handle increased traffic flow as a result of new development.

Reactivation of the two freight lines will help create a county intermodel freight system which, officials said, will provide a "critical" link to a national system that will enable the county to offer new transportation and distribution options.

The Freeholders approved a contract of nearly $70,000 to the Westfield-based firm of A. Strauss-Weider, Inc., to develop and implement a plan "to leverage investment" in the county new freight system.

Anne Strauss-Weider, who attended the meeting, said among her tasks will be to determine those industries that would most likely use a freight system and then match a plan of action with that information.

She said the county needs to build on the strengths of its existing businesses while attracting new firms. Also, the goal is to remove trucks from the county’s roadways by transferring this means of transportation to freight rail lines.

One area which will be studied is how the recent addition of CSX and Norfolk/Southern to Conrail, previously the only major freight carrier in the northern New Jersey port area, will provide increased opportunities for businesses in the county.

The reconstruction and rehabilitation of the former Rahway Valley and Staten Island railroad lines will be overseen by Consoer Townsend Envirodyne (CTE) Engineers, Inc., based in Fort Lee. The board granted a contract of $533,000 to the firm.

The board approved a resolution to make an application to the DOT for $4.3 million in Transportation Trust Funds to reconstruct the two rail lines.

Maurio Checcio, Director of the office of Policy and Planning for the county, said activation of the freight railways will create "a whole new opportunity" for the county in that the lines will enable goods to be shipped out west as well as into Canada.

Freeholder Frank H. Lehr said residents and motorists should not be overly concerned over increased risk of safety to their children or a delay on highways while trains pass. He said only a few cars will pass at a time a few times a day.

"It (traffic delays) will be no more than another traffic light on Route 22," he said, noting that the potential is for up to 9,000 rail cars a year.

He said benefits include less vehicular traffic and less air pollution.

Also included in the overall transportation plan is the creation of cross county east/west public transit rail line with seamless passenger from Plainfield to Elizabethport with access to the monorail system at Newark International Airport. The first section of the line will run from Elizabeth to the port.

Benefits from the project, officials said, would include 60 expanded employment opportunities in the revitalized Port Elizabeth area along with an ease of traffic congestion in the Plainfield-Elizabeth corridor, the port area and along Routes 1 and 9.

The board authorized County Manager Michael J. Lapolla to apply for $300,000 from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to start the Cross County Rail Line Feasibility Study. The county will be provide a match in funding of $80,000.

The Freeholder board also approved a resolution to ask New Jersey Transit to finalize design plans for the Townley Train Station which is planned for Route 82 (Morris Avenue) in Union Township.

The station, which serves the Raritan Valley line, would offset road congestion while offering a transit alternative to Kean College students, employees of Schering Plough and Elizabethtown Gas, as well as local commuters.

New Jersey Transit is currently studying the best alignment of the station along Route 82.

Another piece of the economic development puzzle was the board’s approval of a resolution to conduct a study to establish a Transportation Development District for the county. The study will create boundaries for the district, set up a joint planning committee to include the mayors of the affected communities, as well as develop a financial plan.

The county has secured $300,000 in a grant from state Transportation Trust funds to conduct the study in addition to $80,000 from the county.

The board awarded a contract to the Madison-based firm of of Edwards & Kelcey, Inc. to render consulting services for the development district in the amount of $300,000.

Freeholder Henry W. Kurz said from an economic development standpoint, the county’s latest iniatives will provide "a huge economic stimulance" to the county.

Freeholder Carol I. Cohen echoed those sentiments by saying she was "very excited" by the plan.

"Economically, this county desperately needs this," she said.

Freeholders Cohen, Goncalves and Lehr serve on the board’s new Economic Development Committee.

The entire package of road and rail projects will be uppermost attention of the newly created county Department of Economic Development which was created by ordinance at Thursday’s meeting. The department will be headed by the Deputy County Manager who will be hired by Mr. Lapolla.

The county has not filled this position since the departure of Harold Gibson several years ago. Mr. Gibson left to take a position in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.

Freeholder Chairwoman Linda d. Stender said the department was created through existing county resources and thus will not require any additional funding.

In order to ensure that all municipalities in the county are behind the prjects, Freeholder Donald Goncalves suggested the county develop "letters of understanding" with those towns directly impacted by the projects to make sure "everyone is truly onboard" with the county’s plan.

Freeholder Chairwoman Linda d. Stender said the county needs to move forward with its economic development plan which she said must be a "concentrated, coordinated plan."

"It’s time to take our plans and put them into action," she said, noting that the county’s plan will produce such "tangible" results as increased tax ratables for the county.

In other business, the board appointed Jeremiah D. O’Dwyer as County Counsel, replacing James F. Keefe who resigned. Mr.Keefe was appointed to replace Mr. O’Dwyer in that role in 1994 under a Republican majority.

Mr. Keefe, a former Freeholder, is expected to be appointed First Assistant Prosecutor when Thomas Manahan of Westfield assumes the post of Union County Prosecutor.

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