Mayor Jerry Fried has a vision: He sees Montclair residents cycling along a paved bike trail adjacent to the railway from Upper Montclair to Montclair State University on their way to a show at the Alexander Kasser Theater.
His vision is no pipe dream. For years, people in Montclair and in neighboring towns have floated the idea of converting a rarely used 11-mile railroad track into a trail for pedestrians and cyclists.
And now, at long last, it seems the one-time pie-in-the-sky plan is coming to fruition.
At a meeting in April, the Bloomfield Township Council voted to enter into talks with Montclair, Glen Ridge, Belleville, and Newark to draft a plan to transform the old Boonton Line, which runs through the towns and into Hudson County.
Bloomfield was the first township along the Boonton Line to pass a resolution for the so-called Ice and Iron Rail Trail campaign, with Glen Ridge following suit a few weeks later. Bloomfield has gone a step further by hiring Trenton-based planner Andrew Strauss as a consultant on the project.
Within the next month, Strauss will present his plans for the project to both the Montclair Township Council and the Bellevile Township Council. In addition, he and others will be meeting with Newark officials next week.
Fried said the Montclair Township Council will most likely consider passing a resolution in support of the project that's similar to one passed recently in support of a skate park in Montclair. That resolution pledged only the council's backing — but allocated no funding.
"This is a good opportunity to use the rail line more effectively," said Fried, an avid cyclist.
Ultimately, the idea is to roll out a recreational path from Montclair to Hoboken with an eye towards creating a green alternative for safe commuting between New York City, Jersey City, Newark, and nearby towns.
Richard Webster, legal adviser to the Friends of the Ice and Iron Rail Trail, said that — after obtaining resolutions in support of the project from the towns — the campaign will meet next with county officials in order to gain their backing.
"The idea is that a recreational trail can co-exist with a single-track rail service as the right-of-way is very large," he said.
When asked about funding, Webster said that "there's quite a bit of [grant] money out there to help with the planning of uses for open space and we believe we can make a strong case that this is a very good use of space."
Webster said that it's better for the track to be used than to wind up a wasteland where people gather for nefarious purposes.
Currently, there's only about one freight train that travels on the Essex County portion of the line each week. The line is owned by Virginia-based freight company Norfolk Southern, which has expressed no interest in converting its property for recreational uses. Norfolk officials say they expect to see an uptick in freight services in the next two decades.
But Webster said he hopes that "people power" will change the company's mind.
"We believe we can make a very strong case and that we can get Norfolk Southern to sell probably within a year or two," he said. "Once people understand that a rail service can co-exist with a rail trail there's generally little opposition to the idea."