Rail Access to Liberty State Park: Enhancing the Mobility, Environment & Experience for Visitors

by Bill McKelvey and S. David Phraner

In the fall of 2007 the Central Railroad of New Jersey Veteran Employees Association unveiled their granite milepost monument to past employees of the CNJ under the Train Shed at the Jersey City Terminal in Liberty State Park. Speakers at the event called for restoration of tracks to bring rail equipment to the location for display, interpretation, and interpretive rail ride experiences. Early in 2008 a meeting was held with Park staff to explore how to proceed with the iniative to return rail access to Liberty State Park, New Jersey’s largest urban State Park. We were advised that a feasibility study would be required. With the assistance of members of the New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center, the Rutgers University, Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy was approached to enquire if they might perform such a study for us. They agreed, and a studio which attracted thirteen graduate students was formed; advised and overseen by transportation professionals; and proceeded with a Liberty State Park Rail Access Feasibility Study.

The Study Conclusions: A heritage trolley connection between the Hudson Bergen Light Rail Station/Liberty Science Center and the CNJ Terminal/Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island Ferry Docks as well as a connection with Conrail Shared Assets to facilitate display of rail equipment were recommended. The latter line could also be used to provide transportation in the form of an historic rail ride experience to the south end of the Park. The problems needed to be addressed at the Park were how to plan for expected growth in visitation without the negative impacts of increasing traffic congestion, paved parking lots and road areas. The desired outcome was to move people in, out and around the Park without inducing more undesirable automobile use. The study team and leaders recognized two objectives; shifting public access to and within the Park from auto dependancy to public transit and to design a means for bringing historic rail artifacts to the Terminal for interpretation of Park heritage with exhibits authentic to the Park site. The provision of convenient rail shuttles could entice visitors to leave their autos home and take public transit. Reducing the impact of autos and the carbon footprint of the Park were highly desirable goals. Such a shift to transit would make the Park more liveable and better for the enjoyment of visitors as well as to provide broader public access and increase the capacity of the Park for special events. The stakeholders and professional experts told us where the rail rights of way should be located to minimize impacts on the Park’s open space, view planes, special places and peacefulness. We painstakingly followed their guidance. The planning Studio team explored numerous examples of vintage rail transit in other parks and recreation centers and found that the successful and expanding trolley shuttle service in Lowell National Historic Site was an outstanding model. Public presentations were made of the positive conclusions of the Bloustein Studio at the end of 2008 as well as in 2009 and a final report was completed.

The current situation: Liberty State Park is presently auto dominated and has become even more so with the elimination of the Route 305 Park Shuttle bus by New Jersey Transit. The largest segment of Green House gases (35%) is produced by transportation. It is well known that urban areas, such as where Liberty State Park is located, generate 75% of all greenhouse gases. A smarter, greener and more sustainable future will require us to move away from the auto and the use of fossil fuels, especially at urban locations like Liberty State Park. A substantial reduction could be achieved by reducing auto vehicle miles traveled in and around the Park. A majority of Park visitors would utilize transit more if it were conveniently available and well promoted. At present the Hudson Bergen Light Rail station is more than a mile from the CNJ Terminal and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferry dock. Connectivity of transit is sorely needed in Liberty State Park. Liberty Historic Railway is also willing to help promote the much deferred restoration of the sadly deteriorated historic Train Shed, which is on the New Jersey and National Historic Registers. It is a major part of the Park that has great potential to be used once again as a railway shuttle terminus as well as an educational amenity.

Why use rail? Railway tracks lay lightly on the land, can be landscaped, and their footprint does not shed rainwater runoff as do paved roads and parking lots. The open track structure allows rain to percolate through and grass to grow between the rails. Increased use of rail transport is already helping to reduce global warming and America’s dependence on foreign oil. Rail is a green alternative which helps reduce pollution and will give us a more sustainable future. In the US there are about two dozen heritage trolley or small scale streetcar systems and more than a dozen of these are being expanded. This simple, reliable form of transit from 50 or 100 years ago can bring history to life for 21st century users. Three positives are that heritage trolleys operate at slow speeds, are pedestrian friendly, and they promote environmentally efficient use of Park land. Rail shuttles will not take valuable land away from use by the public! On the contrary, rail use will avoid the paving of additional areas of the Park for visitors by automobile. We know that use of Liberty State Park will grow. Managing that growth will either produce more paving or less land consumption with less intrusive rail greenways. The goal should be to get Park visitors out of their cars and into rail transport.

Why use electrically powered trolley cars? Electricity produces nil pollution in its area of use. The average modern automobile uses only 15 percent of every gallon of gas put into it to actually move, compared with 90 percent efficiency of electric motors. Electricity is an open-ended energy carrier that can blend renewable energy sources with a decreasing carbon content. These sources could include solar, wind, water, biofuels, etc. - all with environmental benefits. In order to reduce global warming America needs to move to a post-carbon mobility future. Electric public transit, like trolleys can help! Liberty State Park can provide a model for such beneficial change. The newly formed, non-profit, Liberty Historic Railway, Inc. wants to help Liberty State Park move into a future in which many more visitors will have to be accommodated.

What is the plan? Phase one of the planned Liberty Historic Railway single track heritage trolley shuttle would begin at Jersey City Boulevard, on the west side of Liberty Science Center, about 300 feet from the Liberty State Park Station of the Hudson Bergen Light Rail System. It would extend north along the elevated NJ Turnpike extension and cross Audrey Zapp Drive to an undeveloped plot of land at the northwest corner of Liberty State Park. In this area, in the shadow of the Turnpike, a proposed trolley carbarn and maintenance facility would be built. This area is near a contemplated future realignment of the Hudson Bergen Light Rail Line which might include a new station. Here our planned trolley line would have a passing track. East of this point the planned route would run along the north side of Audrey Zapp Drive, south of Liberty Landing Marina. Before reaching the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal the trolley would cross Zapp Drive and terminate on the existing display track. Phase one of the planned rail shuttle to the south end of Liberty State Park would begin at the south side of the Terminal Train Shed and run along the west side of Freedom Way to connect with Conrail along McGovern Drive, eventually reaching the planned new picnic area in Freedom Field, at the south node of the Park. This will allow historic railroad equipment which once used the Terminal to reach a display location under the Train Shed, when restored. The trolley shuttle would also eventually terminate under the restored Train Shed.

Liberty Historic Railway wants to help improve Liberty State Park, the people’s park, and keep it free and green. A parting thought: “Travel by rail releases from three to ten times less carbon dioxide than driving or by other modes.” Please visit our website: www.LHRy.org for more information, history, photos, maps, and recommendations.