One Seat Ride: Opportunities & Obstacles

The Raritan Valley Rail Coalition (RVRC) held its monthly meeting on August 12th at the Somerset County Administration Building in Somerville where, among the topics of discussion, was the ‘one-seat ride’ which would affect Roselle Park in a positive way. One-Seat Ride (OSR) means that a rider would be able to get onto a New Jersey Transit train in Roselle Park and not have to get off at Newark Penn Station to change trains in order to get into Manhattan, which is what Raritan Valley Line riders need to do presently.

The meeting began with a presentation by AECOM (Architecture, Engineering, Consulting, Operations and Maintenance) Vice President and Senior Project Manager Ruby Siegel and Dan Baer of Parsons Brinckerhoff which outlined the larger Federal Railroad Administration’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) Future project from Washington, D.C. to Boston which is scheduled to be completed in 2040 and dovetails with the one-seat ride into New York Penn Station.

After that, RVRC Chairman Peter Palmer, who is also a Somerset County Freeholder, spoke of the news last week that NJ Transit gave a commitment to start a pilot program of one-seat ride to start in the spring of 2014 on a limited basis. The remainder of the meeting dealt with the economic opportunities for municipalities affected and the challenges that need to be addressed. Mr. Palmer explained that there is a coalition of Union County mayors, thanks to Mayor Colleen Mahr of Fanwood, who will work together to move the one-seat ride phases along.

RVRC Trustee Member Martin Robins offered details on the recent events, “There was a meeting that was called by Mayor Andy Skibitsky, who deserves a lot of credit for having taken the initiative. He’s the mayor of Westfield and he brought with him Senator Thomas Kean, Jr. and the two assembly people from [the] district, John Bramnick and Nancy Muñoz, and they visited with New Jersey Transit and they apparently got a commitment that New Jersey Transit by the spring will put dual-mode locomotives into service but only for a very limited portion of the Raritan Valley service. They said that the trains would operate during off-peak hours during the weekdays.”

Dual powered locomotives, which are being purchased by NJ Transit, can operate in both electrified and non-electrified territories and would be beneficial to having the same train on the Raritan Valley Line, which is diesel, also utilize the New York City rail system, which is electric.

Mr. Robins added that Mayor Skibitsky recognized that there is much more to be done and that this commitment is strictly a first step. There is a three-phase approach with the first phase being the shoulder off-peak hours (right before and after peak) during the weekdays only – Monday through Friday – and the second phase will include weekends while the third phase will be a one-seat ride during all hours, including peak. One of the challenges as described by Mr. Robins is that there is only one tunnel in operation on any given weekend and that limits the amount of service that is possible. A proposed solution to that would be what was called the Hunter Flyover which is an interchange just outside Newark. Presently, an eastbound Raritan Valley train has got to have all four tracks of the Northeast Corridor open in order to move. If any one of the four tracks has an active train on it, the Raritan Valley train has to wait. The Hunter Flyover would mean it only has to worry about one track instead of four and will greatly improve rush hour service when it is done.

Concluding his statement, Mr. Robins said, “Part of our long-term effort here is to secure some equitable amount of peak period service for the Raritan Valley.  At this point, there is none that New Jersey Transit is offering and that is going to be – in light of the conversation about the choke point and the difficulty of getting trains in – there’s going to be a lot involved in trying to do that but I still believe it is definitely something that is conceivable and possible and that it’s also equitable and we should be trying to get some peak period service. It will have a dramatic effect, I think, on real estate values if we can secure some of that service.”

RVRC Secretary John P. McDougal added another matter which was of import regarding the first phase of the one-seat ride, “It’s a pilot program. They’re going to be collecting all that data. One of the suggestions or advice that I have for the coalition . . . is to spread the word. We can spread the word and as many people we can get on those off-peak hours and prove to New Jersey Transit and other individuals and groups that this is going to work and that we need this . . . It’s for a short period of time.”

In addition to the resolutions passed by numerous municipalities in support of the one-seat ride (Roselle Park passed Resolution 39-13 on January 17, 2013), Mr. Palmer said that RVRC has asked each of the four counties affected to contribute $250 and for each municipality to contribute $50 each in order to enable RVRC to pay for things they need to do in order to get the word out, including a website.

Mindy Scarlett, the managing editor of the Alternative Press for Scotch Plains and Fanwood, addressed the plan to put together a comprehensive website linking to Facebook and Twitter with instructions to people on what to do by sending letters to NJ Transit and elected officials. The website will also include media packets, resource tools, instructions, and grass-roots implementations. The prototype should be ready by the September 4th RVRC meeting – at which point the website team will begin to visit municipalities to have the governing bodies identify volunteer coordinator(s) in each town.

Some other matters to keep in mind included that currently, AMTRAK weekend service is reduced to a single tunnel into New York on weekends and that there are five New Jersey Transit slots available each hour – five in, five out – to go the New York City. Four of them are currently occupied and RVRC is working on getting the fifth slot allocated to Raritan Valley. This time slot is what a member of the audience called the ‘white elephant in the room’ since it is pivotal in progressing the one-seat ride.

At the moment, the spring one-seat ride pilot program is dependent on the delivery of new dual-powered locomotives which are scheduled for early next year.

Martin Robins reiterated the need for communication and spreading the word about one-seat ride, “The critical thing is for people who are in mayoralty positions, it’s very important that you join together with Mayor Mahr of Fanwood on a very active basis and make it known to other elected officials as well as your constituents how important this is. And that’s the way this is going to succeed. It has to come from the grassroots up.”

The information provided at the meeting impacts Roselle Park on multiple levels. Primarily there was a study by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, provided to Roselle Park News by their New Jersey Advocate Janna Chernetz, Esq., that highlighted the increased median home values for those properties within a half mile from a one-seat ride train station by 7.5% the very first year and 5% for those houses within one mile of the train station. The values would continue to increase every year thereafter. Additionally, the transit villages, such as what is being proposed again on the Ryan property (located right next to the Roselle Park train station) would have a high marketability.

There was talk of the second alternative to the one-seat ride being the same platform transfer at Newark Penn Station. Currently, riders whose last stop is Newark have to leave the platform they are on and go down into the station only to come up on another platform to catch the train into New York City. Having those passengers remain on the same platform would significantly cut down on travel time and the same report by Tri-State showed that the average increase in home values was about $3,000.00 for every minute saved on travel/trip time.

The meeting closed with RVRC Chairman Peter Palmer stating that a meeting of the Union County mayors whose towns are affected by the ‘one seat ride’ was going to be scheduled to be held in Roselle Park sometime in September.