Extend The Newark Subway to Watsessing Station and Beyond

The Newark Subway run by New Jersey Transit (NJT) has much potential and is underdeveloped. It started as a replacement for the Morris Canal which was abandoned in the mid 1920’s. At that time, several cities, Newark, Bloomfield, Clifton, and Paterson purchased the canal route to be used for a main line for light rail network extending from Newark to Paterson. The Depression intervened, Public Service of New Jersey made the decision to convert its trolleys to electric buses, and only Newark completed its section. But what a system! Three other important light rail lines used the Subway as way to efficiently and quickly transverse the downtown city streets. The #29 Bloomfield line ran up the avenue all the way to Verona. The #21 traveled from West Orange and used entrances at Warren and Orange streets to enter the subway. And the #23 exited on a secret ramp (Shhh! It’s STILL there!) and traveled down Central Avenue to the Highland Avenue station in Orange. The 21, 23, and 29 were converted in the 1950’s to busses.

What was interesting about all three was that these routes didn’t dead end into small suburbs but connected with other rail lines at their outer terminuses. While the Highland Avenue on the New Jersey Transit’s (NJT) Gladstone Line still exists in Orange, the #21 connected with the now abandoned Erie West Orange Line and the #29 connected with the lost Erie Caldwell branch. This INCREASED the utility of the lines because a person living in the middle had reasons to go in BOTH directions. There was a destination AND a connection to other systems.

Which leads us to the topic at hand, the northwest terminus of the Newark Subway (New Jersey Light Rail). It ends just a block short of Bloomfield avenue at a shelter surrounded by parking lots, abandoned factories, a neighborhood, and a storage center. Four blocks to the north and one block to the south along Grove Street are the backs of strip malls. It connects with four bus lines. If you didn’t know it was there, you would miss it driving down Bloomfield Avenue.

But, if the light rail was extended ½ mile to the west and north, it would terminate at the NJT’s Watsessing Station on the Montclair Line in Bloomfield. Now there would be an obvious west end connection to Montclair, Montclair State University (MSU), Wayne, Dover and Hacketstown. And for the people in those communities they have an alternative route to jobs in Bloomfield. The area around the Watsessing station still retains the early 20th century buildings. These are mixed use building with commercial on the lower levels and apartments above. The area has several antique stores, botegas, fitness centers, restaurants, and there is a Home Depot just three blocks north. Next, by adding a station just after crossing Bloomfield the extension could provide a connection with all the new housing that is being built at the intersection of Bloomfield and Watsessing. Behind that is another vacant brownfield bounded by MacArthur and Arlington that would be perfect for Transit Village styled apartments or condominiums or cooperatives. And finally, it would cross Bloomfield Avenue at grade providing an announcement: HERE IT IS!

It’s also time to start think about where we would like the Newark Subway to go.

The original plan from the 1920s was to use it as a super transit-way to connect Newark and Paterson off of the city streets. That vision is still possible with the underutilized and abandoned rail lines that still exist. The West Orange line is intact in the east almost all the way to Secaucus. And the right-of-way is undeveloped all the way to West Orange. Next, there is an under-utilized line that runs from the North side of Newark through Belleville, Nutley, the Highway 3 commercial area of Clifton, to downtown Paterson. It intersects with the aforementioned West Orange line. An “easy” and useful extension would be to run some of the trains east from the Branch Brook Park Station to the Newark line located just a block east of Washington Avenue in Belleville. The line would then turn north paralleling the Washington Avenue supporting that main-street commercial district. At Avondale the line would turn NW to bisect Nutley and give them rail transportation options. It would continue to Clifton’s Highway 3 Commercial strip and on to a terminus at the Paterson train station downtown. In Paterson, the line would connect directly with NJT’s Main Line allowing for connections all the way north to Port Jervis and south to NYC.

Finally, there is real utility in returning light rail trams to the city streets in Newark. Buses are very useful but if I pointed out a random bus, could you tell me where it is going? How about if it wasn’t present when I asked? But a light rail system announces its presence with its infrastructure. You KNOW that there is a trolley the runs on this path because you see the rails in place. It states that the city has invested in that area and that attracts businesses large and small. They know that their workers and clients can get to their business and not have to worry about parking.

When I travelled to Europe, the light rail systems I used were visible examples of civic pride. They were an investment in the community that all ages and abilities could access and enjoy. The large trams were structured to carry bicycles enhancing the utility of the bicycle. It wasn’t just ride and park, it was ride, ride, ride! (bicycle, tram, bicycle).

The trams helped complete the streets.

Let us complete the streets Essex!

by Charles Sontag, PhD

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