By CAROL GORGA WILLIAMS
Perhaps community organization still has impact: After a very organized campaign to inform local residents that the state Department of Transportation had potential plans to close three more railroad crossings in Asbury Park, the DOT has cried “uncle.”
At least for now.
DOT has informed the city that it will place the closures on hold in favor of more research which will likely take several years.
Although the DOT had maintained that nothing had been decided, planning documents indicated that closures were on the list for Sixth, Fifth and First Avenues.
Now Polli Schildge of Asbury Park’s Complete Streets Coalition said she has received more than 85 emails opposing the DOT’s potential plans. This is consistent with the City Council’s view that these closures should not happen.
There is little doubt in the mind of Mayor John B. Moor that the closures are about money. The more closures the DOT can get, the more reductions in the department’s liability coverage, he said.
As for how the actual closures are treated, he pointed out that nearby Spring Lake got a lovely wood structure while the Summerfield Avenue closure in Asbury Park got an unsightly fence which tends to collect wind-blown trash.
“Talk about a tale of two cities,’ he said. “We’ve been debating this with them for years. It may be a little about safety but it is really about money.”
At a recent council meeting Schildge said the NJDOT closures (previously) at Summerfield and Sewall Avenue “indicate disregard of Asbury Park’s history and for the people of this city.”
“We do not accept that there is any “safety” benefit to be gained by closing crossings, rather it’s clearly a cost savings to avoid upgrading and maintaining the crossings,” she continued.
“A closure at Asbury Park Sixth Avenue rail crossing would adversely affect people walking and rolling to services across the city. People living in low cost housing on Drury Lane (an extension of Sixth Avenue) would be directly impacted, as well as students and families walking to the high school playing fields, which serve kids of all ages.
“ It is irresponsible to NJDOT to consider allowing this inequity to continue – in fact it goes against the basic tenets of USDOT focus on equity in transportation: The USDOT Equity Action Plan and the USDOT Debuts Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program: providing “technical assistance and funding for communities’ planning and construction projects that aim to connect neighborhoods back together by removing, retrofitting, or mitigating transportation barriers such as highways and railroad tracks. An example is the NJ Transit pedestrian tunnel in Long Branch.”
She argued that closing the crossing at Sixth Avenue sends the worst possible message to Asbury Park, perpetuating the historical divisions in the city; would prevent residents, students, and families from accessing services across the
city and school fields in Asbury Park and would hinder swift access to calls by emergency vehicles.
Schildge’s lobbying was joined by Interfaith Neighbors whose letter from Executive Director Paul McEvily underscored the complicated relationship between racism, transportation and opportunity in the city.
“Sixth Avenue is a through way to Ocean Township and provides ready east/west access to and from the Asbury Park High School and Monmouth County Culinary School locations,’ he said. “The Fifth Avenue crossing provides ready east/west access to the federally chartered health clinic heavily relied upon by the West Side residents. The closure of either or both of these crossings would significantly increase the traffic on Fourth Avenue, which is already a through street that has significant traffic and vehicles traveling in excess of the local speed limit.
“Of equal or greater concern is that additional closings of railroad crossings between the east side of town and the west side of town will further exacerbate the “divide” between residents of this city, a city that has long struggled to eliminate barriers to inclusion and equity as between its diverse population.”
Sylvia Sylvia-Cioffi, the executive director of the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce, said she is hopeful she can get a meeting with DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti to talk about what she said were “astonishing” inequities in how the state had handled such issues in Asbury Park as opposed to other communities.
Some 60 percent of all proposed railroad crossings are scheduled for Monmouth County. Of those, 25 percent are in Asbury Park where the average household income is $54,000 as opposed to $125,000 in Spring Lake, she said. She said she could find only one instance of a crash here so she cannot accept the DOT’s position that the crossings are potentially to be closed because of safety concerns.
The proposed closures were resurrected in a November 2022 study commissioned by the Federal Highway Administration and the state DOT with cooperation from Rutgers University Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation and Rowan University Center for Research and Education in Advanced Transportation Engineering Systems The DOT Bureau of Research goal was to identify preferred places for closures to increase safety, save money and improve service.
City officials have expressed that they are in vehement disagreement with the recommendation to close the Sixth Avenue railroad crossing and has provided as such in writing to NJDOT several times.
NJDOT has the authority to eliminate at-grade railroad crossings without the consent and concurrence of the respective municipality. However, NJDOT prefers to have the municipality’s consent.