Survey Invites Public to Weigh in on Debate Over Mass Transportation in Liberty State Park

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How often do you visit Liberty State Park? What activities or attractions bring you to the park? How did you get there?

These questions are part of the Jersey City Planning Division’s recently launched survey that aims to figure out what mode of transportation is best for people visiting Jersey City’s Liberty State Park (LSP) and its numerous attractions, including the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Science Center, the 9/11 Empty Sky Memorial and businesses like Liberty House and Maritime Parc.

While the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail takes non-drivers to the edge of the park at the station bearing its name between Communipaw and Johnston avenues, pedestrians and other commuters have no way to travel through the 1,212-acre park (600 acres of land, about 600 of water or marsh) other than walking or biking, which discourages those with mobility issues from visiting and leaves the park’s popularity hinging on the weather. According to Google Maps, walking from the HBLR station to the historic Central Railroad Terminal near the park’s easternmost point — a 1.3-mile distance — takes 24 minutes for the average pedestrian.

Starting in the early 2000s, an NJ Transit shuttle bus took visitors from the light rail into and around the park and saw around 450 riders on weekends, says Friends of Liberty State Park president Sam Pesin (whose father Morris Pesin founded LSP). The bus ride took passengers in a loop from the HBLR station into the north end of the park and then out the south end before returning to the light rail. In 2010, however, cutbacks led NJ Transit to discontinue the 305 Liberty State Park Shuttle, a move the Jersey Journal said would save $450,000 annually. Service was briefly restored for summer weekends last year, but has since remained grounded.

“I feel it’s very anti-urban,” says Pesin, who says people without cars need in-park mass transit and that the state government should subsidize the shuttle service. “It’s anti-LSP. This is a great waterfront park — the people’s park — and the people need and deserve a shuttle bus.”

Other solutions have also been proposed. Liberty Historic Railway of New Jersey (LHR) proposes restoring the Central Railroad Terminal and using it to support trolley service from the light rail through the park — the aforementioned 1.3-mile walk. On their website, LHR lists 67 reasons supporting their argument, most of which note the terminal’s rich history as a transportation hub for immigrants coming from Ellis Island and others. Since the terminal saw a large volume of commuter traffic in the past, LHR says it should easily be able to handle LSP’s visitors and support its status and the most visited park in the state.

While the Friends of Liberty State Park supports restoration of the train shed, Pesin calls LHR’s idea an “outrageous proposal,” noting cost and safety issues related to installing tracks throughout the park. “Having train tracks throughout the park would take away the powerfully shining treasure of open space,” he adds. “Urban people need the open space and grass in this densely populated, concrete county. We are going to fight very hard against the trolley cars taking away the grass.”

LHR officials declined to comment, noting that they are not conducting the current transportation study. “It would be premature and inappropriate for us to try to influence the outcome. We feel confident that the study will point the way forward to a transportation solution for the park,” says chairman Bill McKelvey.

For now, the only option for non-drivers navigating the park is a pseudo-hybrid of the other two solutions — a shuttle bus that looks like a trolley car.

Michael Brendzel’s original idea was an affordable transit service that would take people from hubs like Newark Liberty International Airport to LSP. With a bus service, tourists would have better access to a beautiful, historic park, he reasoned, and would tell friends and relatives back home, resulting in more visitors.

He says he received a 10-year operating permit from the Port Authority of NY and NJ to operate to and from Newark Liberty International Airport. But in the process of trying to figure out how to get people to the park, he wound up offering transportation through the park.

Brendzel launched Liberty Loops, a summer weekend trolley service within the park, on June 30. A day of hop-on, hop-off service on the green and candy apple-red trolley cost $5 per adult and $3 per child.

“Since I personally love the park, having taken my kids there for many years, I was willing to spend some money to try to get this off the ground and provide a prototype for what is eventually possible if people decide to put their mind to it,” says Brendzel, an attorney and entrepreneur who lives in Millburn and has self-funded much of the project.

But ridership has proven to be a challenge. The service was suspended July 28 and 29 because not enough people were using it, Brendzel says.

Plans are on hold and to move forward, Brendzel says he must know if the public is interested and willing to support the service and “the future of the park.”

“It really depends on the response of people within the park,” he says.

Indeed, the city’s survey will define what the public wants.

The Liberty State Park Circulator Cost-Benefit Analysis, city officials say, looks at a range of route and modes, including rail and rubber tire options, using a comprehensive set of quantitative and qualitative evaluation criteria.

“We believe that a circulator service will support tourism and enhance the multi-modal mass transit network for park visitors, residents and workers in the vicinity,” says Mayor Jerramiah Healy.

“Jersey City has a high transit-dependent population and was identified by the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) in 2007 as an Environmental Justice community. Because 40 percent of Jersey City residents are without access to a car, many residents rely on public transportation to access park facilities,” he adds. In July, the city received a $175,000 grant from the NJTPA for the analysis.

The survey is being conducted online and ends early next week. It is available in English and Spanish and takes about one minute to complete, city officials say. Paper copies of the survey are available at the Mayor’s Action Bureau at City Hall (located at 280 Grove St., Room 105), the office of the Division of City Planning (30 Montgomery St., Suite 1400), the Park Office at Liberty State Park (200 Morris Pesin Dr.), and at the information desk at the rail terminal in LSP. All are encouraged to participate, even those who have never visited Liberty State Park. As part of the public outreach plan for the study, two public meetings will also be held on dates yet to be determined.

Take the survey here.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Weiss; JCI file photo by Kevin Wong

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.