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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Atlantic City Rail Line may still expand despite Governor's call for subsidy cuts

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's proposal to cut NJ Transit's subsidies comes just as the Atlantic City Rail Line is planning to expand, the Press of Atlantic City reports. Transit officials have proposed building a new station in Egg Harbor Township, near Galloway Township's Pomona section - a station that could turn into a major work transit hub for the Federal Aviation Administration's William J. Hughes Technical Center and future businesses such as the Next Generation Aviation Research and Technical Park. This comes as lines across the state already have seen numerous service cuts - including a popular early morning Atlantic City-to-Philadelphia run that was canceled less than a month ago.

The public will get to hear more about the state's plans for NJ Transit when the state Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee meets Feb. 18 to hear public testimony.

But despite Christie's proposing cuts, raising fares and some service decreases, it is possible work on the Atlantic City Rail Line upgrades could continue, even though trains and service to the Pomona station may be severely reduced. The proposed station is part of NJ Transit's capital budget, not its operating budget, so it probably will not be affected by the subsidy cuts.

Another factor: "A lot of federal money that New Jersey gets from the Federal Transit Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation comes with specific strings attached to be used for certain purposes," said Paul Larousse, the director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University. Building the new station to serve workers at the FAA and Next Gen Park could very well proceed, even with fewer trains, he said.

"You can't use (the money) for other purposes," said Larousse. "People may ask, ‘Why are they building a station now?' But a lot of that may be economic stimulus money, stimulating jobs (in construction) while cutting jobs from the operating budget."

NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said Wednesday that no final decisions have been made about which lines might be affected by cuts to the operating budget. He said he could not provide a breakdown of the current operating budget.

Calls to the governor's office for comment were not returned.

Christie revealed his subsidy-cut decision Feb. 12 to a joint session of the Legislature as part of a budget deficit reduction plan. He wants to cut about $33 million from NJ Transit's $296-million subsidy for the current fiscal year. He also said the state must reduce future subsidies to NJ Transit and force the agency to become more financially self-sufficient.

As the cost of running the Atlantic City Rail Line increased over the years, so did the size of the subsidy: The figure was $10 million in fiscal year 2000 and nearly doubled by 2009. About 77 percent of the line's operational costs were subsidized by the state in fiscal years 2000 to 2008 before jumping to 82 percent in fiscal year 2009.

Rutgers' Larousse said that there were few good options available to NJ Transit. "One of the easiest ways to generate more money for operations, he said, is to raise fares. "But that could also cause ridership to go down," he added. "It's not a one-for-one proposition."

NJ Transit had been considering more trains and stations for the Atlantic City Line, which has the largest percentage of its operating costs subsidized by state funds of all NJ Transit rail lines, excluding light rail.

While NJ Transit officials said earlier that specific upgrades for the Atlantic City plans are still being analyzed and there are no cost estimates for the proposed work, other projects indicate the potential expense. The Pennsauken Transit Center, for instance, will link the Atlantic City Rail Line with the River Line, NJ Transit's light rail system that runs between Trenton and Camden. The project, which includes a bi-level station and parking lot, will cost $40 million.

The Atlantic City Rail Line is the only rail system that crosses southern New Jersey and enters Pennsylvania. The train travels 64 miles between Atlantic City and Philadelphia, with stops in Absecon, Egg Harbor City, Hammonton, Atco, Lindenwold and Cherry Hill. Rail advocates say the line is crucial for southern New Jersey workers.

In Galloway Township, Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., president of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, believes the proposed Pomona station would serve not only the technical center and research park, but also his college and Atlantic City International Airport.

The station would also make the line more attractive for students who cannot afford cars, Saatkamp said. The station would help link the main campus with its proposed satellite campus in Hammonton, and create an affordable and easy way for students to take advantage of cultural and entertainment events in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, he said.

With little information coming out of Trenton, riders and residents can take comfort that the process will eventually be aired in the open, Larousse said. NJ Transit is considering several ways of increasing service on the line, which runs between Atlantic City and Philadelphia.

One station at Pennsauken is currently under construction. The $40-million facility will link the Atlantic City Line with the River Line light rail system that runs between Camden and Trenton. Another station could be built in Egg Harbor Township, near Galloway's Pomona section. The station would service agencies such as Atlantic City International Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration's William J. Hughes Technical Center and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

A third station could be built in Woodcrest, Camden County. The facility would be a second transfer station for the Atlantic City Line and PATCO's High Speed Line.

The majority of the Atlantic City Line is single-tracked. That means some trains must pull onto sidings to allow other trains to pass. That helps limit the number of trains that can run on the line. Given that it costs tens of millions of dollars to add one mile of new track, it's unlikely this proposal will go far. NJ Transit officials said they'll more likely extend sidings as a way of running more trains.

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