Several years ago, before NJ Transit even started work to rebuild the old Lackawanna Cutoff, there was opposition from a couple of environmental groups because of concerns about toxins in soil under the rail beds, possibly the result of the old coal burning engines.
NJ Transit responded that a federal environmental impact study found there would be no significant environmental impact from laying new rails.
Richard Vohden, who heads Sussex County’s board of freeholders — equivalent to county commissioners in Pennsylvania — and the county’s representative to the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, said there’s still some opposition to rebuilding the 28-mile rail line. It would connect with the line in Pennsylvania that runs to Scranton. But those opponents are in the minority.
“I believe most people would love to see the rail come through,” Vohden said, adding, though, that some detractors say most of the passengers for 20 miles into New Jersey would be Pennsylvania residents, so Pennsylvania should pay for it.
While a few new homes have been built along the line since it last operated decades ago, the line runs through a mostly rural, wooded landscape in New Jersey.
Vohden said people see the rail line as a good transportation option to help them commute to jobs in the cities.
“Most people commute out of Sussex County,” he said. “There are no jobs here. I live in Green Township — most of these people work in the city.”
Investors at work
Others have been thinking of the future, investing in property near the line.
“I personally know people who have purchased some very expensive pieces of property at the Pennsylvania border, hoping this will go through,” Vohden said.
Some of the properties are on access roads to Interstate 80, where their owners plan park-and-rides or other developments if the rail line goes through.
Leaders in Northeastern Pennsylvania have been discussing how to get federal and state funding to re-institute passenger rail service from Scranton to New York City.
NJ Transit has been laying a 7.3-mile section of track from Port Morris to Andover along the so-called Lackawanna Cutoff, which takes its name from the 28-mile section of track that was removed after eventual owner Conrail went out of business and abandoned the right of way in the 1970s.
The Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad laid the line from Roxbury, N.J., to just over the Delaware in the early 20th century to create a faster route between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
New Jersey is paying $37 million to rebuild that 7.3-mile section, but no funding has been approved to replace the remaining missing section of just over 20 miles, according to NJ Transit spokesman John Durso.
Durso said recently about half of the 7.3-mile section is completed, but NJ Transit still is going through the permitting process with New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection related to the latter part, from Lake Lackawanna to Andover.
Vohden said one issue that has come up is workers can only lay rail from November to March in one area because of a species of bats that breed in the trees.
Another issue is causing a delay. Rocks are falling in the 40-foot Roseville Tunnel in Byram Township.
“They’re going to have to line it with concrete,” Vohden said. “That’s the holdup now.”
Bruce Scruton, a reporter at the New Jersey Herald, said there was some opposition over the cost of laying new rail, but NJ Transit already owns the track’s right of way.
“When the railroads went out of business, they sold the line to private entrepreneurs, who pulled up the track,” Scruton said. “Eventually New Jersey owned it and gave it to NJ Transit.”
Now, hikers and bikers use the line, though in some areas, there are no-trespassing signs, he said.