Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rail line would enhance park, not hurt it

County officials take issue with DEP letter critical of MOM line

FREEHOLD – Activation of a 150-year-old rail line that runs alongside Route 522 in Manalapan would provide much-needed passenger rail service to the western part of Monmouth County and also enhance the public’s enjoyment of Monmouth Battlefield State Park.

“The significant history of our county did not end with the Battle of Monmouth,” Monmouth County Administrator Robert M. Czech writes in a letter to DEP Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson. “In fact, there is a rich history in the area surrounding where the three-day Revolutionary War battle was fought and along the British retreat into Middletown.”

Among those is the wagon freight/stage coach route adjacent to Route 522 and the resulting construction of the county’s first railroad in 1852 – the Jamesburg-Freehold Agricultural Railroad – which was used to transport troops during the Civil War. The line, which exists today and is used to move freight, is the one the county wants activated as part of the Monmouth Junction alignment of the proposed Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex (MOM) passenger rail line.

“The railroad predates park development by more than 100 years and would not be expanded beyond the single track in this area,” Czech said in the letter. “When the park’s Visitor Center was built on top of historically significant Combs Hill to overlook the historic houses and fields below, the railroad was already part of the landscape. Trains are not visible from the park’s Visitor Center.”

The county’s letter addresses concerns from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks and Forestry. In a letter dated May 19, Acting Director of Parks and Forestry Jeanne A. Mroczko expressed concerns that more frequent use of the rail line for passenger service would negatively impact the future development of the park as a National Historic Landmark.

In fact, the Monmouth Battlefield National Landmark Planning Guide prepared by the Friends of Monmouth Battlefield cites the compatibility of passenger rail service with park development and, in fact, recommends development of the Monmouth Junction alternative. The Guide states:

“This line, originally constructed in 1852 through central New Jersey, links southern Middlesex County (near Princeton Corridor) with eastern Monmouth County, including Allaire State Park. The Planning Guide recommends the development of passenger service from Middlesex County to Allaire State Park, with a stop at Monmouth Battlefield.”

County officials note that rail service has been compatible with other “First Rank Battlefield Parks,” including Gettysburg National Military Park.

“Access via rail can enhance park development, access and use,” Czech writes. “The historic Monmouth Junction Alternative (aka Freehold & Jamesburg Agricultural Railroad) exists and should be used to this park’s benefit, following the recommendation of the master plan (Planning Guide).

“Furthermore, we feel that passenger rail service on the existing tracks is actually less intrusive than the proposed internal loop road that would wind its way through all major skirmish sites, adding new stream crossings and additional impervious surfaces to the open space of the park, while further disturbing important archeological sites such as the hedgerow, the Parsonage farm and the ‘path of armies’ through the ‘Point of Woods,’ to name a few,” Czech continued.

If the Monmouth Junction alternative is selected for the MOM line, it would provide people from the entire Northeast with public transportation to the park. “This will enable daily attendance to increase at the park and make the historic battlefield and surrounding area an easily reached destination and available to all,” Czech said in the letter.

The county also takes issue with Mroczko’s contention that the railroad and Route 522 creates an interpretive “dead zone” through the center of the heaviest fighting. The county feels that Route 522 provides access to that area of the park and notes that the park’s Planning Guide discusses using Route 522 as one possible leg of the proposed park loop road, which would be safer than the current pedestrian crossing as an access to the northern part of the park.

“Historic maps show that the road existed at the time of the Battle of Monmouth,” Czech said. “The battlefield skirmishes certainly straddled the road and, in part, the road was one of the reasons the conflicts occurred in this area. … The county views Route 522 and the Monmouth Junction line more than just a road or a rail line, but as a vital interpretive link that depicts the county’s historic past.”

Only one station is proposed in the area surrounding Monmouth Battlefield State Park, and that site can be moved farther west, away from the park. Any station-related traffic would be limited to the morning and evening rush hours, when park use is minimal. It is likely that the Monmouth Junction alternative would remove cars from Route 522 and Route 9, as there would be station sites in Freehold and Freehold Township to the east, and Jamesburg to the west, reducing the need for commuters to travel through this area to access the main arterial roadways.

“The station site would provide a wonderful opportunity for historic interpretation of the Revolutionary War battles, the important agricultural rail line and the rich history of the Tennent settlement area,” Czech writes in the letter. “It is our belief that it is quite advantageous for the railroad and the park to continue to coexist.”

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