Before she called the proposed Essex-Hudson Greenway a win for both counties and for environmental justice. Before she called it a game-changing effort for children and families looking for fresh air. Before she said it was an example of what can happen when government works. And before she even said it would be better than New York City’s famed High Line, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz said she needed to do one thing.
Breathe a sigh of relief.
Ruiz (D-Newark) said she was thrilled the long-proposed nine-mile project — which was formally begun last week with the announcement that the state was going to purchase the land that will be used from Norfolk Southern to build the extensive greenway through some of the most densely populated municipalities in the state — was a step closer.
After all, she knew it was never a sure thing. And Ruiz said she knew what the alternative would be. She has lived it, she said.
“In Glen Ridge, in Bloomfield and in Montclair, the line has been a nuisance because it’s been overgrown,” she started. “In the city of Newark … it became a negative place of attraction for illicit activities and opportunities for distress.
“And, if it were far removed from our families, it would be one thing, but this literally abuts homeowners’ backyards, it abuts new economic developments, a new school and the first county park system in the country.”
Instead, the proposed Greenway will represent a moment of good government, she said, thanking Gov. Phil Murphy for agreeing to take on the project.
“He’s taking all those pieces really to lift up environmental justice in the most critically needed spaces so that our children can run, and they can breathe clean air — and they can understand that’s how government works when we all put our minds, our hearts and, most importantly, our passion, together.”
Murphy said he was happy to do so. He called it the crown jewel of our state park system, one he predicts will be among his administration’s five biggest accomplishments.
And he noted it’s not just what the park will be — but who it will serve.
“This will be accessible to hundreds of thousands who will see this in their backyard,” he said. “You don’t have to get a car and go to Island Beach State Park, you can walk up and climb up. That’s a huge element of what we’re celebrating here.”
The Greenway will connect the communities of Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny, Secaucus and Jersey City. It will follow the right-of-way of the eastern portion of New Jersey Transit’s former Boonton Line, which stopped passenger service in 2002 and limited freight service in 2015.
The park will pass through a diverse landscape of existing parks and wetlands, as well as urban, suburban and industrial areas. Spanning an average of 100 feet or more in width throughout its route, the project has the potential to offer significant benefits, especially in light of the current health, environmental and fiscal crises.
It’s why local community leaders have been calling for the creation of a linear park on the former rail line property. They say it will:
- Create a safe, off-road trail to ride a bike and walk;
- Ease traffic and offer active transportation options;
- Create alternate commuting options;
- Provide close-to-home, easy access to the outdoors;
- Bring much needed green space to urban communities that are traditionally and negatively impacted by infrastructure development.
The Essex-Hudson Greenway Coalition — comprised of the Open Space Institute, the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition and September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance — has been advocating for the project for years.
In July 2020, the Open Space Institute reached a preliminary purchase and sale agreement with Norfolk Southern Railway for the property in Essex and Hudson counties for the purpose of the Greenway.
While last Friday marked the most important step in the process — acquiring the land — the completion figures to be time-consuming and difficult. Additional funding still needs to be secured. And officials will have to determine who will maintain and provide security and oversight at the site.
Funding will be provided through a collaborative effort by the Murphy administration, including the support of the Department of Environmental Protection and NJ Transit, the Legislature and New Jersey’s congressional delegation, utilizing American Rescue Plan funding.
State officials said they hoped it would be completed in some fashion before Murphy leaves office four years from now, even if that means only parts of the nine-mile park are opened by then.
Getting any part of the park open will be cause for celebration for those who have worked for more than a decade to reach this point.
Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, who knows the struggle all too well, said the fight was worth it.
“Upon its completion, the (Greenway) will serve as a blueprint for future environmentally friendly infrastructure projects nationwide, while helping our local communities rebound from the financial challenges they experienced due to the pandemic,” he said.
Open Space Institute CEO Kim Elliman agreed.
“Without question, this deal underscores all the merits of public-private partnerships and strategic land protection in one package,” she said. “The Greenway project will make it easier for millions of people to enjoy the benefits of being outdoors, completely transform the way communities connect with nature and connect with each other, linking people to parks, waterways and their neighbors — all while creating alternative transportation options, improving water quality and spurring economic activity.”
Commissioner of Environmental Protection Shawn LaTourette, whose office will run point on the project, said he is happy to take on the task.
“This is a historic investment that will enrich communities in Essex and Hudson counties, the state and the region — serving as a hub for ecotourism and unlocking the potential for even greater transit and environmental infrastructure improvements,” he said. “It is exactly the kind of transformative project that New Jersey residents deserve.”
U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.) agreed. The pandemic, she said, has made everyone appreciate the ability to get outdoors even more.
“Not everybody can go to the Shore for the weekend,” she said. “Not everybody can get away.”
But everyone can come here, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo said.
DiVincenzo, famously known for his support of the county, made it clear that the Greenway’s impact will stretch outside of the county.
“I said from the beginning to everybody who came to my office, this is a state project,” he said. “This is not just for Essex and Hudson; we’re going to benefit everybody who comes here.”