Another step toward creation of North Brunswick train station serves as latest example of how N.J., counties can work together

The top governmental and transportation officials in the state were at the announcement that Middlesex County will serve as project manager for the North Brunswick train station. It is the first time NJ Transit has allowed a local government entity to build a train station.

The Middlesex County Improvement Authority — along with the state Department of Transportation, New Jersey Transit and other partners — announced Thursday morning that it will initiate an request-for-proposal for the design and engineering of a new train station for North Brunswick.

That, however, is just the basics. This is more than just another public-private partnership project in the state.

The North Brunswick train station project represents a number of things:

  1. The ability of a county to use its improvement authority as an economic development driver — and Middlesex is one of the few counties truly able to do this;
  2. The willingness of the state to entrust a project to a county — doing so with an acknowledgement that it could get done faster this way;
  3. A preview of the future for the state — one where transportation is uniquely tied to economic development and social growth.

The last takeaway was the one that really stuck with DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.

On a virtual conference call Thursday morning, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said she sees the train station as the anchor of the Main Street Transit Village, which will help attract a next generation of families looking for a place where they can live, work and play.

“By creating a hub of transportation in Middlesex County, we continue to give our residents and new residents choices about where they can choose to reside, whether it be this new train station, new ports that will be developed or any other transportation project that we deliver in the county,” she said.

“We are getting the opportunity to be central to both the Philadelphia employment market, the New Jersey employment market and the New York employment market by creating good, strong public transportation. And that’s what it’s about.”

Then, she dropped her biggest line: It’s about creating a community where cars may not be necessary.

“The uniqueness of this particular project is it creates community,” she said. “It just doesn’t create commuters. It creates community by building a transit village where people can learn to live, work and play in that area.

“(This station) creates a phenomenal opportunity for young families who may want to be able to go without a car. I know that probably sounds strange, coming from a commissioner of transportation. But we’re not just about cars. We’re not just about traffic, we’re about how mobility is accomplished. And mobility takes on many, many forms.

“And, so, we have to be open-minded to new ways of doing business.”

Gutierrez-Scaccetti’s comments fell in line with what Middlesex County, under Freeholder Director Ron Rios, has been preaching for years (click here for our story on how the county was able to right its financial ship).

Rios said the MCIA has successfully pivoted its focus from general county services to primarily economic development, leveraging its unique ability to bond and finance projects. With Middlesex County’s “AAA” rating, the MCIA can obtain financing at low interest rates — which allows major capital ventures to be undertaken without increasing county taxes, in most cases.

The result is this type of project — one with real community impact.

Rios called the RFP a leap forward in building this critically needed transportation hub on the Northeast Corridor — one that would bring relief to one of the state’s busiest rail lines, reduce traffic on Route 1 and attract new revenue in the region.

“For the county, the project has become emblematic of our continuous focus on forward momentum and prosperity for all our residents, businesses and partners,” he said. “Today’s milestone is another example of Middlesex County and the MCIA’s leadership since it took the helm of this venue in the fall of 2019.

“This move was a major paradigm shift for how large transportation projects are managed and executed in this state.”

The project started in 2017, when the state announced an allocation of $50 million from the Transportation Trust Fund.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti joked: “For those that look at the trust fund and wonder what we do with it. This is a shining example of the good work that the trust fund can do.”

Rios and Middlesex County officials quickly turned to the MCIA to move the project forward.

“It has unique financing capabilities with the ultimate mission is to best serve the public,” he said. “These decisions are interlaced strategically with the overall vision of the county to drive economic growth across this region under a master economic plan: Destination 2040.”

The best thing: The station will be finished long before 2040 because of the ability to turn to the MCIA, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.

“This is a unique project for the New Jersey Transit team,” she said. “We don’t generally let go of projects like this, we do them ourselves. But, we realized, in this case, we have the ability to create a new model for delivering a community-based train station that will reflect the community’s thoughts and interests, that will perhaps get done a little faster, because it’s a higher priority in a smaller queue.

“If we can, together, help this train station advance, while we are helping so many other projects advance across the state, I see that as a win-win for all of us.”

One Gutierrez-Scaccetti was quick to celebrate.

“I am certainly humbled to be part of this today,” she said. “But I just love the partnership that we have with Middlesex County in driving that multimodal transportation network that the county has worked so hard to develop.”