ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — In a major milestone in the long-sought effort to create a multiuse recreational trail spanning Essex and Hudson counties, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Sept. 15 that the state has successfully acquired the inactive Norfolk Southern Railway Co. railway that stretches nearly 9 miles from Montclair to Jersey City, passing through Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny and Secaucus. The plan is to turn this 9-mile strip of land into a linear park.
The acquisition of this former rail line property, the old Boonton Line, sets the stage for a transformation — New Jersey’s newest linear state park. The $65 million state investment marks New Jersey’s single largest conservation project ever and the largest transaction aimed at securing a nonmotorized transportation corridor, according to the state.
The Essex-Hudson Greenway Coalition, composed of the Open Space Institute, the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, and the Sept. 11 National Memorial Trail Alliance, which coordinated and advocated for the project over the last four years, is ecstatic about the purchase.
“This acquisition by Gov. Murphy and the state of New Jersey brings us one step closer to creating much-needed green space for the most densely populated and diverse region in the entire nation,” said Kim Elliman, president and CEO of the Open Space Institute, which secured the purchase agreement for the 135-acre former rail property and provided extensive transactional support for the acquisition. “OSI is proud to have played a role in bringing this transformative project to today’s announcement and looks forward to building on our public-private partnership and fulfilling the promise to create a world-class linear park that will greatly enhance local communities and be enjoyed for generations to come.”
Measuring close to 100 feet wide in areas, the park will offer residents space for off-road transportation and recreational biking and walking. The greenway will offer green space for historically underserved communities and is expected to offer the communities adjacent to the property significant flood control and environmental solutions to resolve longstanding issues.
“Today’s announcement of the acquisition of the land for the greenway is a historic step on the path to transforming our region with equitable and safe active transportation options and much-needed open space. We want to thank the many advocates who persevered over so many years to fulfill this dream, and to thank Gov. Murphy for securing this land and his commitment to creating it as New Jersey’s next state park,” said Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition.
In 2021, the Sept. 11th National Memorial Trail received unanimous federal legislation for trail route connections from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York to the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va., to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., creating a triangle-shaped, 1,300-mile trail route; 50 percent has so far been completed. The Essex-Hudson Greenway will be a portion of this trail.
“Many people don’t realize that, in addition to providing nearby residents with new green space, the Essex-Hudson Greenway also has national significance as a component of the 9/11 Memorial Trail,” said Andy Hamilton, chairperson of the Sept. 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance board of directors. “It’s exciting to see that we are one step closer to realizing the full potential of this project, and we remain committed to supporting the state of New Jersey and our coalition partners as the project moves forward.”
The local communities along the line have been very involved in advocating for the creation of the greenway. Groups such as the Bloomfield Open Space Trust Fund, the Friends of the Ice & Iron Rail Trail, and groups in North Newark, Jersey City and Hoboken have long advocated for the greenway.
“It’s something that we’ve been talking about and eagerly anticipating here in Belleville for a while,” Belleville Mayor Michael Melham said in a Sept. 16 interview. “We are eagerly looking forward to it. We think it’s a game changer for our community and it checks all the boxes. We get open space, we get recreational uses, we get an abandoned dilapidated infrastructure to be repurposed, so it really does check a lot of those boxes. We get to clean up some existing space. We get to add to our open space and add to our recreational facilities, and it runs right through the heart of Belleville and it connects two different counties.
“I think our residents are really looking forward to being able to ride bikes on it or just take a walk on it,” he continued. “I’ve been involved literally since Day 1, when this was just a dream. It’s great to see it now coming to fruition, and I know it took a lot of work on many different levels of government, whether it’s local, county, state or federal, and I’m glad to see it all coming together. I can’t wait for it to be completed.”
Officials in Glen Ridge are similarly excited about the forward progress on the greenway.
“We are thrilled to support the greenway and excited to reach this important milestone with the purchase of the property from the railroad,” Glen Ridge Council President Debbie Mans told the newspaper on Sept. 20. “For Glen Ridge, the transformation of this abandoned rail line into a multiuse pathway means increased access to recreational space and an alternative to using our cars to reach destinations in Essex and Hudson counties. The greenway design will also address stormwater management, which should help address local flooding in our neighborhoods.”
Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia said the greenway is a “great program” and “long overdue.”
“Residents that border that railway have struggled,” Venezia said in a Sept. 20 interview, citing issues such as weeds and garbage. “This is going to help them.
“I think it will be an advantage to the residents of Bloomfield,” he continued. “It will offer a green space to walk and bike, which will benefit everyone.”
At the county level, the Essex County Board of County Commissioners has long supported the project, and its members are pleased to see this step forward.
“Residents of underserved communities adjacent to the line will now have more access to recreational areas, which will foster an appreciation for the outdoors, encourage exercise and improve the overall health and quality of life for future generations,” Commissioner Brendan W. Gill said. “I believe, upon its completion, the Essex-Hudson Greenway will serve as a blueprint for future projects nationwide. It will demonstrate the positive effects large-scale, environmentally friendly transportation projects can have on our community.”
Gill initially became involved with the Essex-Hudson Greenway when it was known as the “Iron & Ice Rail Trail.” At that time, nearly 14 years ago, residents of communities in Essex County and the surrounding areas began campaigning for a linear park that would serve as a “shared-use path” for walking, running, riding a bicycle or just relaxing with family and friends.
“During my time as a public servant, I have always been an advocate for environmental responsibility and the preservation of open space,” Gill said. “Growing up in Montclair, I valued the outdoors and developed the belief that all people benefit from having safe, recreational areas in close proximity. … The Essex-Hudson Greenway will connect people and connect communities. It will literally bring people together and allow residents from different communities to experience and understand that we are the same community.”
Photos Courtesy of Essex-Hudson Greenway Coalition, Glen Ridge and Essex County Board of County Commissioners