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Convention puts kink in Jersey's rail travel

(The following article by Ron Marsico and Joe Malinconico was posted on the Newark Star-Ledger website on July 8.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- Thousands of riders on NJ Transit's Midtown Direct rail lines will be diverted to Hoboken during the Republican National Convention to ease the congestion and massive delays expected at New York's Pennsylvania Station, transportation officials said yesterday.

Additional PATH trains will run between Hoboken and Manhattan to accommodate the extra commuters, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is working in concert with NJ Transit.

Some 11,000 commuters use Midtown Direct each weekday between 6 and 9 a.m., according to NJ Transit. Another 20,000 who ride on the Morris & Essex Lines and the Montclair-Boonton Line the rest of the day also would be affected, officials said.

The goal is simple: Reduce traffic into Penn Station during the convention, which is being held Aug. 30-Sept. 2 at Madison Square Garden. Security concerns have led authorities to close six of the eight exits at Penn Station, as well as a number of surrounding streets, significantly limiting access to the area.

The Garden is located directly above Penn Station's NJ Transit, Amtrak and Long Island Railroad lines.

"This is all about reducing the pressure in New York. One of the ways we can do that is to reroute the Midtown Direct service to Hoboken," said Penny Bassett Hackett, an NJ Transit spokeswoman.

Hackett said, however, that the plan has not been completed.

"It is under consideration. And we are working with PATH to supplement their service. We expect to finalize our plans over the next several weeks," she said.

Trains on NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast Line also arrive at Penn Station each day, but officials would not say whether service on those lines would change.

After arriving in Hoboken, Midtown Direct riders will be able to take the PATH trains into Manhattan, with stops at Christopher and Hudson streets and along 6th Avenue at 9th, 14th, 23rd and 33rd streets. The PATH's 33rd Street station is located one block east of Penn Station's 7th Avenue entrance.

"The plan is being considered," DOT spokesman Joe Fiordaliso said. "In principle, it looks good, but it doesn't have the sign off on all the levels right now."

Many rail commuters already have been making alternate plans to avoid Penn Station during the convention.

"It's probably a pretty good idea as long as Hoboken can handle it," said Kathleen Hamm, a Midtown Direct rider from Millburn. "I was thinking of switching to the Hoboken trains anyway."

Hamm said she was more concerned that plans to close most entrances and exits to Penn Station would produce ugly overcrowding.

"I can't imagine it not being people gridlock with only two exits open," she said.

Jill Pozarek, a Midtown Direct rider who works at Novartis' offices in Manhattan, said her company is giving its employees who live in New Jersey the option of working out of the firm's office in East Hanover.

"They'll just find an open spot and work out of there," she said.

Another commuter, Tom Groppe, said he hopes to work from home during the last week of August.

"I suspected they would be running the trains into Hoboken," Groppe said. "It wouldn't be an easy commute even if (Penn) station was open."

The change in the train routes shouldn't shake commuters too much, especially considering that Midtown Direct did not start operation until the mid-1990s, said Doug Bowen, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers.

Before 1996, trains on the Morris & Essex Lines only went to Hoboken. In 1996, certain trains along those lines began going directly to Manhattan, with the rest going to Hoboken. The Montclair-Boonton Line got service to Penn Station in 2002, with some trains still running to Hoboken on that line.

"I think a lot of the Morris and Essex veterans will return to their pre-1996 patterns," which meant transferring in Hoboken, Bowen said. "Even now, there are people who actually split the ride. They come in during the morning on Midtown Direct and go out at night through Hoboken.

"That's part of the reason the Morris and Essex line is so beautiful, it's positive redundancy," Bowen said, referring to the various travel options available to commuters on those trains.

Once they arrive in Hoboken, commuters can also board ferries to Manhattan. Officials said there would be additional ferry service to take the pressure off the rails.

"NY Waterway is working with NJ Transit to address commuter needs during the Republican Convention next month and will have added ferry capacity wherever it is needed," said Arthur Imperatore Jr., president of NY Waterway.

Thursday, July 8, 2004

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