Forty-Years-Unused Rail Line Could Mean Huge Connections for New Jersey

Posted 02/11/16 by Liz Sewell in Building Trails

Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia | Photo courtesy Mark Willard | CC by 2.0

Update 7-26-17: New Jersey Transit has agreed to work with the county to develop this trail, and we need your help to bring this vision to life. If you live in the area, please email your freeholders now to show your support for this project!

To help celebrate Martin Luther King Day last month, I was invited to help lead a group of students in volunteer work in Pennsauken, New Jersey—located northeast of Camden, just across the river from Philadelphia.

Pennsauken is the site of a disused rail segment between Dudley Grange Park and the “Merchantville Mile,” a well-used rail-trail running through the neighboring community of Merchantville, New Jersey. If transformed into a trail, the Pennsauken segment could provide a safe off-road connection to the Ben Franklin Bridge and into Philadelphia.

Volunteer youth pose on the Pennsauken corridor in New Jersey on Martin Luther King Day | Photo by Betsy McBride

Conversion of this segment into a rail-trail is a great opportunity that has been in the works for years, and RTC has been offering assistance to local trail advocates to help make the project a reality.

But back to Martin Luther King Day—in the morning, I watched more than 150 students and group leaders pack into the Urban Promise Ministries auditorium to pay respect to King’s impact through song, dance and spoken word. The students then split into their groups to head out into the community and give back through a variety of service activities. 

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During the day, I had the opportunity to speak with my group leader, Betsy McBride, an extremely dynamic and active resident of Pennsauken who is serving in her second term as a Township Committeewoman. Betsy is responsible for several Pennsauken commissions and departments, and is currently advocating for the rail-trail project.

The rail line lies less than 500 feet from the entrance to Urban Promise’s campus, and in addition to providing access to and from Philadelphia for local residents, its transformation to a multi-use rail-trail would allow the students of Urban Promise access to a clean, safe linear park for exercise and transportation.

“It’s good for economic development, it’s good for active transportation, and, once complete, it will allow people to travel to and from Philadelphia into Merchantville and even further east into Moorestown,” says McBride, adding that in its current state, “[the] unused path is dangerous and hazardous to passersby.”

Merchantville-Pennsauken disused rail corridor | Photo by Carl Knoch

After spending some time on the corridor with the kids, it was easy to see McBride’s point. The snowy, overgrown track is so full of garbage and indications of misuse that it takes almost no time at all to fill 10 giant yellow buckets with bottles and cigarette packs, diapers, and other litter.

“The area is currently run down and hurt by the appearance of this ‘rail to nowhere,’” continues McBride. “Simply removing the overgrowth and debris will drastically improve the image of the area and give a sense of hope and excitement to residents."

McBride also views the transformation of the corridor as an opportunity to connect children and adults to recreational and cultural events in Philadelphia, Camden, Pennsauken and Merchantville. She adds, “Creating a lighted trail will take that hope and make it a reality. The region needs trails and connectivity.”

Glimpse of potential future rail-trail in New Jersey | Rendering by Jim Brown

Studies by RTC have shown that unused, unmanaged and overgrown rail corridors attract vagrancy, vandalism, littering and much worse. These problems can be reversed, however, when a corridor is turned into a rail-trail and is no longer used as an isolated hiding place close to private property.

While there are some challenges to overcome to move this project forward, RTC and our local partners on the ground remain hard at work demonstrating to public officials and community members the positive impact of the project. The corridor has been unused for more than 40 years, but if transformed, it could create a seamless connection with the popular "Merchantville Mile" Bike Path linking some of New Jersey’s underserved communities to amenities in New Jersey, Philadelphia and beyond. 

Like McBride, who is working to revitalize the community she calls home, stakeholders are beginning to realize the positive impact the trail will have for the entire local region.

Stay tuned for updates!

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