Upon beginning service in 2004, the RiverLINE, New Jersey Transit’s 34-mile light-rail service between Trenton and Camden, was often reported to have been an expensive mistake. Critics cited the large construction cost overruns and posited that South Jersey would see limited benefits from the line and that ridership would be much lower than predicted. In 2004, MTR stated that, “…increases in ridership, as well as economic development along the line will be essential components to the RiverLINE’s long-term success.”
So, just how is the RiverLINE doing 7 years on?
Other than a small decline in ridership in 2010, the RiverLINE has shown a year on year increase in passenger trips since beginning service in 2004 (note: Passenger trip information is not included for 2004, because the RiverLINE only operated for part of this year). The slight decline in passenger trips in Fiscal Year 2010 came as NJ Transit issued a large fare hike, and was in line with the nationwide decrease in public transit ridership during that period, which has been attributed to persistently high unemployment. Notably, the RiverLINE saw a 10.05% increase in passenger trips in FY 2009, while nationwide public transit ridership declined by 3.8% during the same period (New Jersey’s unemployment rate at that time was in line with the overall US rate).
There is evidence of some beneficial economic effects for communities along the RiverLINE since service began. A study by the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University found that growth in construction permits along the RiverLINE corridor between 2004 and 2007 was greater than the rate of growth in permits for the state overall, as well as for areas near, but not directly on the line. Additionally, during this same period, owners of residential units in lower-income Census tracts near RiverLINE stations saw net increases in the value of their homes. Report authors noted that zoning for development near the transit line could further those benefits to other areas.
There is also evidence that developers have chosen locations for new construction projects specifically due to proximity to the RiverLINE (including a planned redevelopment of two former knitting mills, located between Riverside’s town center and the train station, into residences). However, many of these projects are not yet under construction due to current economic conditions. One project that has been completed was significantly altered due to its proximity to the RiverLINE. The developer of a 97,000 square-foot condominium development in Cinnaminson, NJ, who had purchased the property before the opening of the transit service, substantially changed the design of the project so it was more integrated with the nearby transit station and had better pedestrian connections.
That developers see the service as an amenity and have shown interest in undertaking projects near the line is clearly in line with a recent Monmouth University poll showing that two-thirds of New Jersey residents would like to see the development of more sustainable communities, with easy access to multiple forms of transportation and opportunities for walking to shops and restaurants. Should ridership continue to increase, there should be even further incentive for developers to locate projects along the RiverLINE corridor.