River Line to Debut Amid Hopes, Criticism

The River Line passes through Camden en route to Trenton, a trip that will take 73 minutes.

Camden Courier-Post – March 12, 2003

Sunday start is historic, but not everyone is on board

By Richard Pearsall

Shortly before 6 a.m. Sunday, a diesel-powered train that can carry 180 passengers will pull away from the Entertainment Center station here, marking the start of service on the South Jersey light rail line.

Just how many passengers the train will actually carry — on Sunday,Monday and in the days and months to come — remains the billion-dollar question about the controversial billion-dollar line.

Full or empty, Sunday’s inaugural run of the 34-mile,Camden-to-Trenton “River Line” will be a historic occasion.

It is the start of the largest-ever public sector investment in South Jersey, the first “trolley” to run through the streets of Camden since 1937 and the first passenger train to run along the Delaware from Camden to Trenton since 1963.

By comparison, the PATCO Hi-Speedline, which opened in 1969 and which carries roughly six times as many passengers a day as the River Line is expected to carry, cost $94 million.

The Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry bridges together cost less than $350 million to construct (again, of course, in “yesteryear” dollars.)

Some people, such as Hamilton resident Rosa Rivera, are planning to give it a try.

“It will drop me off right outside my building,” said Rivera, director of financial services at Rutgers-Camden, who plans to take the train from Bordentown.

But most people interviewed Thursday called it a waste of money, even as they hoped it would succeed.

“I used to teach environmental science,” said Rick Hall, 55, a chiropractor from Willingboro, “so I’m aware how important it is to get cars off the road. But I don’t think this line is going to get enough people off the road to justify the expense.”

The current administration in Trenton took office cursing the River Line as a terrible investment that should never have been built and that the state could ill afford.

Gov. James E. McGreevey went so far as to launch a criminal investigation of the project more than a year ago — an investigation that disappeared into the recesses of the Attorney General’s Office and hasn’t been heard of since.

But having completed the line — albeit 14 months behind schedule and several hundred million dollars over budget — the current administration is determined to make the best of it, it says, both as transportation and as an engine for economic development.

When McGreevey, State Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere and NJ Transit Executive Director George Warrington break a bottle of champagne over a rail car Saturday to christen the line, they will urge residents to put behind them the line’s “colorful history,” as Warrington put it recently.

They will talk instead of their hopes for the revival of Camden and Trenton and all the old riverfront communities in between.

On Thursday, Joseph North, the NJ Transit official in charge of light rail operations, predicted residents will be “pleasantly surprised” when they hop aboard the line.

Given the generally low level of expectations, North may be proven correct.

Rosa Feketics, a 93-year-old Beverly resident, said she was going to ride the line, describing it as “convenient.”

But others find it unnecessary. Hall, of Willingboro, says everyone he hears talking about it in his office in Burlington Township views the line as a “waste of money.”

Planners and developers, however, see bright promise in the rail line, talking about the millions of dollars that have already been invested on nearby projects such as the Burlington Coat Factory in Edgewater Park and the Merck Medco offices in Willingboro.

But those are on Route 130, not on the line itself, critics note, as is most of the retail development that has taken place in recent years.

And in the old riverfront towns, there are only limited signs of revival in downtown business districts that are hard-pressed to compete with the big box stores on the highway.

“Everybody’s hoping for success,” said Joseph Domenus, the owner of the Riverside News Agency. “But I don’t see it happening.They can push it any way they want, but what the line amounts to is transportation for people who don’t have transportation.”

More or better bus service would serve the same purpose at far less expense, Domenus said.

Critics of the line complain about more than the economics of the line. They don’t like the additional traffic signals that have been installed, saying the line is causing congestion, not relieving it.

They don’t like the horns that are sounded at each of the 70 grade crossings, comparing the blare to the sound of a “strangled duck,” as one resident put it.

They worry that the trains will bring more drugs and criminals to their towns than tourists or shoppers.

Transit officials have adjusted the traffic signals and are”working” on the horns, although they are limited in what they can do by federal regulations, they say.

They have set a bargain basement price of $1.10 anywhere on the line to attract riders.

They are doing what they can to ameliorate one of the principal problems with the line – its limited hours.

Because it shares the tracks with Conrail, the River Line will operate only between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., which limits its utility for night-time entertainment events in Camden and Trenton and connections coming back from Philadelphia or New York.

The trains will operate until midnight Saturdays, when there are no freight runs.

And on other days NJ Transit will run a late-night shuttle service between Pennsauken and Camden (on tracks that it does not share with Conrail) for concertgoers and baseball fans who want to avoid the hassle of parking in the city.


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