Eight new stations were supposed to be built along the former Lackawanna Cutoff, but construction has yet to begin on the first stop.
In Northern New Jersey, nearly every county is served by NJ TRANSIT commuter rail stations. However, the state’s northernmost county, Sussex, has not had operating passenger train service in nearly 50 years. That was all supposed to change when construction began to expand service along the Montclair-Boonton and Morristown Lines to Andover Township as part of a restoration of the former Lackawanna Cutoff. Yet 16 years after the State of New Jersey acquired the right-of-way for the railroad, Sussex County still lacks commuter train service, prompting many residents and officials to wonder what is causing the delay.
In the early 20th century, one could board a train in Hoboken and ride on the route of the present-day Morris and Essex and Montclair-Boonton NJ TRANSIT lines until Roxbury, where the train would follow the tracks of the Lackawanna Cutoff through the mountains of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, eventually arriving in Buffalo, New York. However, the farthest west that the lines travel to today is Hackettstown, causing many Sussex County residents to drive to train stations in Mount Arlington, Dover, and even Secaucus when traveling or commuting to Manhattan or Jersey City, according to Andover Township Mayor Thomas D. Walsh Jr.
In an interview with Jersey Digs, Walsh, who moved from Weehawken to Andover as a child, described how the long commute to Manhattan and Jersey City from Sussex County has prompted some residents to move back to Hudson and Bergen Counties.
“It’s not that they don’t love it up here,” said Walsh. “It’s the fact that it’s inconvenient since that’s where the jobs are and that’s where the money is.”
As Sussex County’s population continues to decline, despite its scenic location with several state parks, golf courses, and proximity to the region’s cities, Walsh feels that opening a train station in Andover would be a step towards bringing wealth, businesses, and young people back to his community.
”Millennials want convenience,” he explained. “If you want to go to a play, go to work, or go to a ball game, what’s more convenient than jumping on a train in your own town?”
Revitalizing Sussex County and reducing traffic on Route 80 are among the reasons why many legislators sought to restore service along the Lackawanna Cutoff, the first step of which involves laying 7.3 miles of track from Port Morris, through the Roseville Tunnel in Byram, to Andover, where a station and parking lot with 125 spaces would be constructed along Roseville Road. 19 eastbound and 20 westbound trains would operate per day, and the trip from Andover to Hoboken Terminal would take an hour and 29 minutes, and approximately two hours to New York Penn Station.
Eventually, according to NJ TRANSIT’s 2016 annual report, there is a “long-range potential to extend service into northeastern Pennsylvania funded by the Keystone State,” with service ending in the city of Scranton, making one other New Jersey stop in Blairstown and several stops in Monroe County, Pennsylvania.
Although some of the tracks have been laid, there are still several additional miles to go for rail service just to reach Andover, including the rehabilitation of the Roseville Tunnel, the development of a grade crossing in Stanhope, and the construction of the station itself.
So what has caused the project to take so long? According to The Township Journal, there have been difficulties obtaining permits to “upgrade a culvert” near the station site, which sits on private property, whose owner feels that a train station should not be constructed in the area due to its location in a flood zone.
However, Walsh feels that political retribution could also be to blame.
“Everybody keeps throwing more and more hurdles in the way of this station,” the Mayor explained, stating that although Township and agency officials have a weekly conference call, “it seems like every time I get off the phone, I have more questions than I have answers.”
Walsh says when his municipality was the first in the state to pass a resolution opposing the proposal to increase New Jersey’s gas tax, which was supported by local State Senator Steven Oroho, the Senator sent him a text message stating “kiss the train goodbye if that happens,” referring to what would occur if the bill had not passed, despite previously allocated funds for the project. This is not the first allegation of retribution regarding the Township’s resolution. A request for comment regarding the project left with Oroho’s office was not immediately returned.
In a statement in regards to the status of the Lackawanna Cutoff to Jersey Digs, NJ TRANSIT Senior Public Information Officer Lisa Torbic stated that “NJ TRANSIT continues to work with the DEP and other stakeholders,” adding that “NJ TRANSIT has been in regular contact with Andover representatives regarding this matter” and “we continue to evaluate submissions for Roseville Tunnel project.”
As far as when the first stage of the project will be finished, a completion date is still not clear. A Sussex County report from July 2016 said that the schedule calls for completing the Andover stage of the $61.6 million project in late 2018, and Walsh says that he is “cautiously optimistic” that the Andover Station could be finished in two years.
”Having different departments pointing fingers at each other and not getting everyone in the same room, I don’t see how anything is going to get done,” he explained.