The push to find a way to cross I-295, which would close the gap between the northern and southern legs of the Johnson Trolley Line pedestrian and bicycle path in Lawrence Township, is beginning to pick up steam.
The Princeton Council has joined a growing list of officials that would like the New Jersey Department of Transportation to connect the two segments of the Johnson Trolley Line path, creating a link to other pedestrian and bicycle paths in Mercer County and the region.
In its Dec. 30 letter to New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the Princeton Council wrote that it was joining federal, state, county and municipal elected officials and local government professionals in support of creating a safer way for people to travel by foot, by bike or by wheelchair across the interstate highway.
“As a recreation outlet, the Johnson Trolley Line trail would connect communities north and south of I-295 to the Lawrence Hopewell Trail and eventually to Mercer County’s Great Western Bikeway, and the many municipal and county parks,” said the letter, which was signed by Princeton Mayor Mark Freda and the six Princeton Council members.
It would also connect counties to the north and south by way of the Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath and the East Coast Greenway.
“(It) would further the already increased usage of trails and the popularity of bicycling,” the letter said.
The Johnson Trolley Line connected Trenton and Princeton, but it ceased passenger operations in 1940 and freight operations in 1973. Portions of the right-of-way have been converted into a pedestrian and bicycle path, but the construction of I-295 has blocked the northern and southern legs from being joined.
When the interstate highway was constructed, the original plan was to build an overpass to carry the tracks of the Johnson Trolley Line over the new highway. But the plan was scrapped because of the limited frequency of use of rail and freight service.
The southern leg of the Johnson Trolley Line pedestrian and bicycle path is a 2.4-mile-long trail, extending from Spruce Street in Ewing Township to the Rider University campus. The northern leg is less than one mile long, and begins at Denow Road and ends on Gordon Avenue in the village of Lawrenceville.
Whether the proposed connection would be a bridge over I-295 or a tunnel underneath the highway has not been determined.
This is not the first time that finding a way to join the northern and southern lines of the trolley line – known as the “missing link” – has been discussed.
Lawrence Township commissioned a feasibility study in 2013 to determine if it would be possible to join the two legs of the Johnson Trolley Line path. Consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff prepared the study, which was paid for by a $40,000 grant from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
The study, which was released in 2014, called for a bridge across I-295 – but the price tag ranged from $1.2 million to $8.1 million. The bridge would have been paid for with private funds or grants, not taxpayer dollars.
The least expensive proposal called for following the southern leg of the trolley line right-of-way, stopping just shy of the highway. A short path would have linked the right-of-way with West Long Drive in the Long Acres neighborhood.
Pedestrians and bicyclists would walk or ride along West Long Drive to Route 206, and then walk or ride along the I-295 overpass to the Lawrenceville-Pennington Road. They would walk or ride on the Lawrenceville-Pennington Road to the northern leg of the Johnson Trolley Line right-of-way, near Willow Road.
The most expensive option, which would also be the most direct, would be to follow the existing right-of-way – the “missing link” – and build a bridge straight across I-295. It would be a lengthy bridge of about 928 feet, with an estimated price tag in 2014 of $8.1 million.
Two additional options, which would have cost less money, called for designing shorter but more intricate bridges. The construction costs for a U-shaped, or switchback ramps and bridge, ranged from $6.6 million to $6.8 million in 2014 dollars.
But complicating any proposed connection between the southern and northern legs of the trail are utility poles – street-level power lines, high-tension power lines, underground utility lines and wetlands, according to the 2014 Parsons Brinckerhoff study.