DRPA Announces Significant South Jersey Transit Proposals

South New Jersey Transit PlansTripartite project would extend DMU commuter rail, improve existing Atlantic City line, and implement bus rapid transit network

Yesterday, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) announced that it had completed its two year-long alternatives analysis study for improving transit between Center City Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and that it was ready to advance a diesel multiple unit (DMU) light rail line between downtown Camden and Glassboro as the first stage of proposed improvements.

DRPA, which operates the PATCO rapid transit service between Philadelphia and Lindenwold, recommended the cheaper DMU over an extension of the more expensive (and faster) PATCO line, which requires entirely separated right-of-way because its trains are powered by third rail. Additional improvements, including a bus rapid transit line along routes 42 and 55 and improvements to the New Jersey Transit Atlantic City line, were also advanced, though DRPA has prioritized the DMU project.

Southern New Jersey — though just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia — currently suffers from a lack of rapid transit offerings, especially when compared to northern areas of the state, which have a number of NJ Transit commuter lines heading into New York City as well as PATH rapid transit and the Hudson-Bergen riverfront light rail. DRPA’s study was intended to point to transit options that would improve the relative quality of public transportation in these areas.

Like the River Line, which runs between Camden and Trenton, the proposed 20-mile DMU line will operate on improved but existing railroad right-of-way and slow to city speed limits in town centers. A PATCO expansion along the same corridor would have required sealed grade crossings and significantly sped up operations as well as provided direct access into Center City Philadelphia through the existing tunnels, but it would have cost more than a $1 billion more to build, money New Jersey simply doesn’t have; the new ARC commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River, at $9 billion, is consuming the majority of the state’s transit expansion budget at the moment.

On the other hand, the lesser investment needed for the DMU proposal, at $1.3 billion, is more manageable. The state has already committed $500 million for the first phase of the project, which would extend light rail 8 miles to Cooper Street in Woodbury, though additional financing would be necessary to fund the entire route to Glassboro. DRPA is likely to apply for and win Federal Transit Administration New Starts money for this line, since at a projected 27,000 daily riders, the line would meet the cost-effectiveness ratings required for dollars from Washington. Passenger service could begin by 2014; it would be operated by either DRPA or NJ Transit.

The secondary elements of the plan, priced at an estimated $700 million, would start bus rapid transit along two major roadways to the east of the DMU line and improve the Atlantic City commuter rail line line with a connection to Atlantic City’s airport and the construction of a new station in Woodcrest.

It’s undoubtedly good news for these Philadelphia suburbs that they’ll receive more transit, thanks to a commitment from the transit-friendly New Jersey government. The choice of DMU service, however, has a number of drawbacks. The primary problem is that commuters won’t be getting direct access to Philadelphia, their primary destination. Instead, they’ll have to transfer at the Walter Reed Transportation Center to PATCO trains. Riders on the proposed bus rapid transit lines would get direct service to Center City.

Second, because DMUs operate in right-of-way that is frequently crossed by cars, they’re slower than a potential PATCO extension would be. It’s not as slow as you might think, though: the trip on the River Line from downtown Camden to Trenton takes an hour to complete, while reserved right-of-way SEPTA R7 service from downtown Philadelphia to Trenton takes almost as long.

If PATCO technology is indeed too expensive, I do think that it makes a lot of sense to make this line an extension of the same-technology River Line and have it operated by NJ Transit. Doing so would allow customers not only to commute to Camden, but also to get from, say, Glassboro to Riverton or even Trenton without changing trains. NJ Transit runs a tight ship and would be good service provider.

Image above: Proposed Southern New Jersey transit improvements, from DRPA

22 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Yonah,

    I’ve always enjoyed reading your blog, and I appreciate your in depth look at transit issues across the world. As a native of Glassboro (the proposed terminus of the light rail line) and a Policy Analyst at an organization that advocates for smart growth in NJ, I thought I would add my two cents to the story. While you’re right in saying that the selected option would provide a slower ride to Philadelphia than the other proposed options, there are several other important factors to consider.

    First, for those unfamiliar with the landscape in New Jersey, Philadelphia is not exactly an equivalent draw in terms of employment in the South as New York is in the North. While 22% of Hudson county’s employed residents work in Manhattan, only 11.3% of employed residents in Gloucester County (where the proposed rail line would run) work in Philadelphia, a figure which has been decreasing. Furthermore, many more North Jersey residents take transit to work in NYC than their South Jersey counterparts do to Philadelphia (70.6% versus 24%, though this figure is obviously influenced by the availability of transit options in each region).

    Many more Gloucester County residents are employed in the County. The three largest employers, Underwood Hospital, Rowan University and the County of Gloucester (based in Woodbury), would all be within walking distance of proposed stations for the selected route. The two other proposed alignments, while faster to Philadelphia, would have run down highway medians and would have only be accessible by car. Anyone looking to use those lines for intra county trips would therefore have to drive to a station, board the train, and arrange a ride or catch a bus on the other end.

    Finally, because the selected route runs through the downtowns of most of the traditional centers in the county, it provides a significant opportunity for walkability and transit oriented development. In fact the two largest towns along the selected route, Glassboro and Woodbury, have already begun redevelopment efforts aimed at breathing life back into their pedestrian friendly downtowns, efforts that will surely be boosted by the completion of the light rail line. In a fast growing county that has seen sprawl consume a significant amount of open space in the last two decades, and in a state projected to be the first in the nation to reach ‘build out’, this is no small consideration. The two faster options would have run through largely undeveloped portions of the county, likely exacerbating sprawl, rather than combating it.

    Finally, for anyone who is interested, this (http://users.rowan.edu/~hasse/glocorail/GLOCO_Rail_analsysis.pdf) excellent GIS analysis by a geography professor at Rowan university of the proposed routes provides additional information about the merits of each alignment.

    Again, love the blog and keep up the good work!

  • Agreed. This option leaves room for reverse commuting, connecting older downtowns, and still being able to get into Philadelphia if that is the final destination. I just wish they would spent the extra money to electrify the line, then it would be truly more sustainable

  • Jay –
    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the alignment selected will be more effective than the others in providing life to aging town centers in this area of New Jersey.

    However, I just want to point out that there were actually five alternatives considered:

    1. AC Expressway Alignment, PATCO
    2. Rt 55 Alignment, PATCO
    2a. Rt 55/Conrail Alignment, PATCO
    3. Conrail Alignment, PATCO
    4. Conrail Alignment, Light Rail

    The option selected was number 4. One of the options also being considered was number 3, which would have put PATCO technology on the same right-of-way. So while I agree with you that the Conrail alignment is better than the highway alignment, the planners could still choose between PATCO and light rail technology for the Conrail route. So the issue here was whether — on the Conrail route — planners should have picked rapid transit or light rail technology.

  • Vin

    Jay,

    I’d just like to point out that Gloucester County is much larger – in terms of geography, probably not population – than Hudson County. I’m not too familiar with South Jersey, but my impression is that Gloucester is mostly rather suburban. Hudson County, on the other hand, is small and dense – drop someone who has never been to NYC in Jersey City and they might well guess they’re in Brooklyn. I agree with most of your points, but I think Gloucester County and Hudson County are not really analagous. You’d probably have to compare Hudson/Union/Essex/Bergen-NYC with Gloucester-Philly, or something like that, to get more usable data.

    That said, it probably is true that more North Jersey suburbanites commute to NYC than South Jersey suburbanites commute to Philly. Not sure that figure is an accurate representation of it, though.

  • Mad Park

    Would someone somewhere please explain the (il)logic of the dead-end ARC commuter tunnels under the Hudson? Interoperability ought to be a primary goal in any new rail project, especially one as large as this one – so, why no connection to GCT; to/from MN, LIRR and Amtrak?

  • Stewart Clamen

    As someone who lives on the current PATCO line and works in Glassboro, I could be one of those reverse commuters. While I understand the economics, I am concerned that the slower speed of a Light Rail will make a commute (a reverse commute so road traffic snarls are not an issue) too long.

    The BRT plan is great, though. As was mentioned in previous comments, running rail down the median of NJ-42/ACE was one of the options, and residential development along that corridor has been quite considerable in recent years.

  • Adirondacker

    ARC under the Hudson River, at $9 billion, is consuming the majority of the state’s transit expansion budget at the moment.

    If it’s a DRPA project does it matter what NJ Transit’s budget is? And a big chunk of “NJ” money for ARC is coming from the Port Authority of NY & NJ. 3 billion if I remember correctly.

  • I’ve been a PATCO rider for years, and looked forward to the expansion of transit into Gloucester County. I understand that the DLRT option provides superior intracounty service at least as measured by population within the greater number of station’s catchment areas. However, I do not understand the viewpoint that this has to be an either/or decision with respect to through operation into Philadelphia. Why have they not explored some sort of hybrid option which combines through operation on PATCO with grade level operation to Glassboro? Electric traction will inevitably provide superior acceleration and better trip times, and not require any sacrifice in terms of accessibility. Surely a small increase in capital costs today is worth insulating the operation against volatile diesel fuel prices and providing superior service for years to come.

  • JPWH

    This is just another example about how the Southern regions are less favored by those in Trenton. There is a ridiculously expensive project going on in the North to build a tunnel to NYC, and if they could have found a way to avoid that, South Jersey could get a real transit system.

    If anyone has ever traveled on efficient systems in other cities (i.e. Washington DC and Chicago), these systems work because they all bring the commuters into the city with usually no more than one connection. They also utilize electric tracks, which is a sustainable energy, on rails that are not interrupted by vehicle traffic. With that being said, new rails should be built with stations through out Gloucester County that are easily accessible by the majority of the counties residents. The rail should cross the Walt Whitman, similar to how PATCO crosses the Ben Franklin Bridge.

  • john

    Personally, I hope this reaches Vineland and the shore soon

  • John

    So how do you make the home owners along this route feel good about the 90dbl horns blowing right outside their homes over 100x a day?

    The residents should file suit against the state in federal court.

  • Woody

    John — Don’t they only have to blow the horn before grade crossings? Eliminate the grade crossings and eliminate the noise.

    Who will pay for building overpasses to replace the grade crossings? Well, overpasses will speed drivers who otherwise have to wait for the train to pass. But will the highway lobby let money be spent that might benefit rails?

    You could ask your local legislator — if he has time in his busy schedule of collecting campaign contributions from road contractors and bridge builders, asphalt and cement makers, vendors of structural steel and road signs, and truckers and their trade association, and from his meetings with representatives from the AAA.

  • Bill R.

    Wdobner is pretty much on target. The reason for the lack of through service is a lack of political will. Funding improvements for more through service between New York and North Jersey (access to the Region’s Core) is acceptable, but funding improvements for more through service between Philadelphia and South Jersey is not viable. You may draw your own conclusions.

    The Atlantic City Rail Line component has nothing to do with DRPA other than the impact of adding an ACRL station at Woodcrest. This project is woefully delayed in the execution, and should have been built between 10 and 15 years ago.

    The Bus Rapid Transit component only serves to redirect riders from PATCO and the Gloucester County DLRT line. Total projected BRT ridership was 9,100, IIRC, figures presented by DRPA at the Project Open House meetings suggest that only 200 new riders would be generated by the implementation of a BRT system. Gloucester County DLRT ridership would decrease from a projected 18,200 to 14,900. and the rest would be riders diverted from PATCO.

  • Chris

    Any idea why DRPA did not opt for an electric LRT system? How much more would this cost for them to pursue. It would definitely allow for quieter trains moving through the downtown areas. I like how they call for green and sustainable infrastructure and then choose a diesel powered option.

  • John

    Why aren’t they doing a normal train and running it all the way to Millville. It leaves out a decent chunk of South Jersey’s population that could easily be served by this.

  • hammersklavier

    @ Chris and @ John:

    My bet is that they’ll be using the same LRVs as the River Line currently is. In this context, the diesel service makes sense. (Surprisingly, according to the figures available on this site, the River Line and 100 have the exact same ridership, by the way.)

    Extending this particular line all the way to the Jersey Shore wouldn’t be the smartest move, in my opinion; following the old ROWs does slow you down some. Instead, a light rail line ought to be built between AC and Cape May, to circulate Shore-bound patrons off the faster AC Line and to their respective destinations.

    Extending this line to Vineland is probably in the cards. With two DMU LRVs converging on Walter Rand now, I would also suspect that the last major unserved South Jersey rail corridor–the one along the Delaware River south towards Woodbury and thence towards Pennsville or Swedesboro (or both)–may well start making a fuss about wanting in.

    I’m beginning to feel that the River Line was just the beginning of what will be a (finally!) comprehensive rail network linking Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs.

    Another project idea I would like to suggest: a River Line-AC Line transfer station at Delair. I sense one reason with the River Line’s ridership is so much higher than expected is because it’s less expensive to take it to PATCO than to take the R7 across the river during morning peak. A transfer to the AC Line here would allow commuters to access University City from the River Line–a limitation in the current system.

  • hammersklavier

    Addendum: The schedule time for the R7 from Market East to Trenton is 1 hr 1 min. Schedule time for the River Line from Trenton to Walter Rand is 58 min. However, to get to 8th/Market (the PATCO equivalent of Market East), an average of 15 min of wait + extra travel time must be budgeted. Hence total commute time from Trenton to Market East is 61 min via the R7, but 73 min via the River Line + PATCO connection.

  • OceanRailroader

    If this links up to the new River front light rail line and the river front light rail line is able to link into the old classic Phili streetcar system. If they add eletric power to it then in idea a classic streetcar could run all the way from Phili down this line deep into New Jersery and a Light rail train could do the same and run into downtown Phili. It looks like once great streetcar system is slowly coming back.

    • Nathanael

      Philly’s streetcars are a non-standard gauge. :sigh: So is the Market-Frankford metro line. The Broad St. metro line and spur are standard gauge.

      There are only two rail bridges across the river near Philadelphia now, both standard gauge: the one used by the NJT Atlantic City line (which has to remain available for freight use) and the one used by PATCO, which is fully grade-separated subway-style rail, but also standard gauge.

      It would take some serious work to have track integration. For now, all the NJ-PA connections will be via PATCO or via full-size trains running into 30th St. Station.

  • ajedrez

    @hammersklavier: He’s just using the comparison of a rail line on a shared ROW versus one on an unshared ROW, so the transfer time shouldn’t be counted.

    But doesn’t RiverLine mostly use an old freight line?

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