Advocates Want Bike/Ped Path as Part of Portal Bridge Project

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Last month, the Obama administration announced a whopping $8 billion in federal stimulus money that is going to 31 states to build and plan for high speed rail. As part of that, New Jersey has been tapped to receive $38.5 million for the reconstruction the Portal Bridge, a century-old structure that takes Amtrak and NJ Transit trains over the Hackensack River in Hudson County.

Construction on two new bridges is expected to commence sometime late next year, and last for nearly six years. The estimated cost of the project, which will help increase capacity on the Northeast Corridor line, is more than $1 billion.

As part of the plan, Hudson County has filed a request with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Green Acres Program, proposing to cede 2.56 acres of land in Laurel Hill Park to the project. Bicycle advocates see this as an opportunity to get a new bicycle and pedestrian path over the Hackensack. They point to a state law that says NJ Transit has to give land back to the county, by either doubling the total acreage taken, doubling the dollar value of the land taken, or a combination of the two. And they are calling on their supporters to put pressure on the county to push for a path.

“We just want biking and walking access,” says Michael Oliva of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which aims to create a nearly 3,000-mile bicycle and pedestrian route from Maine to Florida. He says that there is currently no access being offered on the Portal Bridge project, and when his group has pushed it, they’ve met resistance from officials, who mostly cite safety and national security concerns.

Specifically, the Greenway group wants 2 miles of 20-foot wide trail to take the greenway off-road from the Belleville Turnpike in Kearny to West Side Avenue in Jersey City, near the Hudson Generating Station (see the green line in the map at the top of this story).

Advocates has long seen this area of Hudson County as one of the more difficult segments to figure out, with its heavily-trafficked roads, numerous bodies of water, heavy industry and rail lines. Currently, you can cross the Hackensack on bike or on foot via the Route 7/Wittpenn Bridge, but it can be a harrowing experience. That bridge is also being replaced, and the state Department of Transportation says the new bridge will accommodate pedestrian and bicycle traffic. But the exact plans are still being hammered out, with the proposed bicycle lane currently consisting only of an 8-foot shoulder on the roadway, right next to the proposed vehicle traffic, according to Oliva.

“There is a lot of progress to be made on that bridge still,” he says of the Wittpenn. Moreover, Oliva rightly points out, even if there is dedicated access on the bridge, it’s not exactly easy getting to the bridge. “[That’s] an even bigger concern.”

Getting back to the Portal Bridge, Oliva says the “potential is incredible” for a path which could serve as a key part of a pathway linking New Jersey’s two largest cities, Newark and Jersey City. He adds that the path would serve as a complement the continued revitalization of the Hackensack Riverfront in Jersey City, where the Marion Greenway Park is slated to transform a former toxic site that sits in the shadow of the Pulaski Skyway into a 30-plus acre park.

Oliva and the Greenway advocates are calling on supporters to attend a public hearing on Hudson County’s land transfer this Wednesday, from 6 to 8:30 pm, at the Secaucus Public Library (1379 Paterson Plank Rd.).

If you are unable to attend the meeting, you can submit written comments until Feb. 24. You can mail them to Laurie Cotter, deputy county administrator, 567 Pavonia Ave., Jersey City, NJ 07305. The county asks that you send a copy of your comments to the DEP as well — New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Green Acres Program, Bureau of Legal Services and Stewardship, P.O. Box 412, Trenton, NJ 08625-0412.

Jon Whiten

co-founded the Jersey City Independent. He is currently the Deputy Director of New Jersey Policy Perspective.