ANDOVER – Once upon a time, trains took passengers from Hoboken through New Jersey, into the Poconos and all the way to Scranton, Pa.
The rides ended more than 50 years ago and the tracks were ripped up in 1984.
Almost immediately, railroad enthusiasts and others began efforts to relaunch the service on what is known as the Lackawanna Cutoff. Originally, this was nearly a 30-mile section of track from Roxbury Township, Morris County to near the Delaware Water Gap. The name comes from the old Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad and the fact that the “cutoff” was a shortcut when it opened in the early Twentieth Century.
Various local politicians, including the now-retired Rodney Frelinghuysen, talked over the years about restoring rail service to Sussex and Warren counties and into Pennsylvania. NJ Transit service now ends in Hackettstown.
Not much happened.
But in what may seem like a fairy tale ending, there is now renewed hope.
That brought Reps. Josh Gottheimer of CD-5, and Matt Cartwright, who represents the relevant section of Pennsylvania, to a patch of dirt off a rural road Monday morning in this Sussex County town. The attraction was ongoing construction of a revitalized rail line and a train station.
That is not the entire cutoff, but it’s a start.
NJ Transit is funding the work in Andover, but Gottheimer, Cartwright and Amtrak personnel on hand are hoping to get federal money to complete the cutoff and once again, create a passenger line through New Jersey to Scranton, Pa. The money would come from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill.
There’s competition for these funds and as Cartwright noted, if money doesn’t come to this project, it will go someplace else – like to Mississippi, which Gottheimer calls a “moocher state,” because it receives more in federal aid than its residents pay in taxes.
“We can’t allow that,” Gottheimer said.
Both talked about the need at hand.
Gottheimer spoke of at least 30,000 commuters from Sussex and Warren who drive east to their jobs. Train service would give them another option.
A revitalized rail line would also serve students attending colleges on the route – think East Stroudsburg State and Sussex County Community College – and those traveling for recreation. Cartwright said estimates are that a rail line to Scranton would pump $84 million annually into the local economy.
News on whether this project will get needed funds in this go around should come by October. A potential government shutdown may bring things to a half. Both representatives are hoping for the best, although they lamented that some of the more extreme House Republicans want a government that does nothing.
As the congressmen and others congregated at the train station construction site, it was impossible to ignore the fact this project has been discussed for more than 30 years – literally.
To that, Gottheimer replied that unlike years past, you are now seeing an active construction site.
Now, there are trucks on the site when years ago, there were none.
“Everything is a process and takes time,” he said. “The good news is we are actually making great progress.”
The only thing missing from this upbeat event was a train whistle in the distance.