County announces plans for new parking deck, train maintenance at TBZ

Photo Courtesy of Essex County
County officials join with Turtle Back Zoo leaders on Feb. 7 to outline plans to develop a third on-site parking deck and modernize the miniature train ride at the zoo.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. outlined plans to develop a third on-site parking deck and to modernize the miniature train ride at Turtle Back Zoo on Thursday, Feb. 7. The two projects total more than $17.5 million and will continue the revitalization of the popular destination.

“Introducing new animals and upgrading amenities has made Turtle Back Zoo one of the most popular destinations in New Jersey. With the record numbers of visitors who continue to come, the two garages we have are no longer sufficient to meet our demand for parking. Building a third deck will provide us with additional on-site parking and help alleviate congestion caused by patrons looking for a place to park,” DiVincenzo said. “Our miniature train ride has been a favorite for generations, and the changes under way will improve operations and make it easier for us to maintain the ride.”

Sheriff Armando Fontoura pointed out that his officers do a great job of policing the zoo and complex, and the additional parking will help ease traffic congestion along Northfield Avenue.

“Usually when we stand before you at these events, we are talking about our animals. But these projects before us today are aimed at improving the experience for our guests and that helps with the experience they have here,” Turtle Back Zoo Director Michael Kerr said.

The popularity of Turtle Back Zoo has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and helped establish new annual attendance records in 14 of the last 15 years. Two on-site parking garages were built in 2004 and 2015, respectively, but additional parking is still needed. The third parking deck, which will have spaces for approximately 500 vehicles, will be constructed where the zoo’s maintenance and storage facilities were located. When completed, the first floor of the parking garage will be utilized as the new maintenance and storage area. The covered facility will make operations more efficient and provide better working conditions and cleaner storage areas. The parking deck is scheduled to be completed by November.

To accommodate the third on-side parking deck, several hundred feet of track needed to be relocated and a new maintenance building needed to be constructed. The new maintenance building replaces a structure that was basically a wooden shed to store the trains and keep them protected from the elements when not in use. The new building will still be used for storage, but it will also have a belowground pit that will enable mechanics to perform maintenance on the train engines and cars on-site. In the past, the engines needed to be transported off-site when work needed to be done on them. This will reduce the amount of times the trains are not in use. Work to construct the maintenance building and install the new track started in September 2018 and is scheduled to be completed in March. Passengers will continue to board the train at its current station.

Comito Associates from Newark received a $498,725 professional services contract to design the parking deck and train maintenance building. DMD Contracting from Wayne was awarded a publicly-bid $14.5 million contract to build the parking deck. APS Construction from Paterson was awarded a publicly-bid $2,590,000 contract to construct the train building and update the tracks. The Essex County Department of Public Works is monitoring the two projects to ensure delays are avoided. Funding for the parking deck came from the Essex County operating budget. Funding for the train modernization came from grants provided by the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund and the Zoological Society of New Jersey.

A third project that is already under way and nearing completion is the modernization of the entrance. This is being redesigned to create additional entry points so lines of guests waiting to enter the zoo can be taken care of sooner. It also creates a larger patio area so guests who are in line do not have to gather in the parking lot.