Connecting the ‘missing link’

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Mercer County receives $175,000 grant to study Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor

Mercer County has received a $175,000 grant for a feasibility study of the Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor to develop a pedestrian and bicycle route that would connect the Municipality of Princeton, Lawrence and Ewing townships and the City of Trenton.

The $175,000 grant was awarded to Mercer County by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). It is being funded through the DVRPC’s Community Development Initiative grant program.

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The Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor passes through Lawrence and Ewing townships along the way from Princeton to Trenton. It is part of the Circuit Trails network of pedestrian and bicycle paths in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Part of the Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor overlaps with the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, which is a pedestrian and bicycle path that links Lawrence and Hopewell townships.

The grant would allow Mercer County to hire consultants to work with its Planning Department, the Lawrence Hopewell Trail Corp., and officials from Trenton, Princeton and Lawrence and Ewing townships to assess the Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor.

The feasibility study could lead to additional funding to perform detailed design and engineering work. Construction work would begin later.

Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes thanked the DVRPC for the grant. It will help Mercer County, the Lawrence Hopewell Trail Corp. and municipal partners to move ahead with the proposed pedestrian and bicycle trail link, he said.

“The Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor would benefit our communities by promoting economic opportunity, transportation, recreation and health in a climate-friendly way,” Hughes said.

Opportunities for on-road bicycle and pedestrian facilities are limited by narrow roads and limited rights-of-way, the grant application said. Bicyclists experience high levels of stress on Route 1, Route 206 and Princeton Pike, which run parallel to the Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor, the application said.

The Johnson Trolley Trail would act as a spine, connecting economically disadvantaged communities with additional employment opportunities, educational institutions, and local open space and parks without requiring motor vehicles, the application said.

It would give low-wage workers an opportunity to commute to jobs that pay more money. Those jobs, with employers such as Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Princeton University, are located north of I-295, the application said.

Princeton University and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., which are the two largest private employers in Mercer County, are located near the trail. In Lawrence Township, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s two campuses have direct connections to the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, the application said.

Princeton University, the Princeton Theological Seminary, the Institute for Advanced Study, Rider University and The College of New Jersey are among the educational institutions within one mile of the trail, according to the application.

The Lawrenceville School, Notre Dame High School, The Hun School and the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science also are among the educational institutions within one mile of the trail, the application said.

A proposed pedestrian-bicycle bridge crossing over I-295 would allow students from northern Lawrence Township to have a safe way to cross the interstate highway to reach the Lawrence Intermediate School, the Lawrence Middle School and Lawrence High School in the southern part of the township, the application said.

Also, Rider University students would have a safe means to cross the highway to the stores and restaurants in the village of Lawrenceville, according to the application.

A 2021 survey of Lawrence Township residents, township advisory boards and committees, schools and open space advocacy groups conducted by the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association (TMA) cited the bridge as the most important improvement to the Johnson Trolley Trail, the application said.

The Johnson Trolley Trail and the overlapping Lawrence Hopewell Trail would connect several municipal and county parks, the application said. It would provide people in Trenton, Ewing Township, southern Lawrence Township and Princeton with increased access to open space and parks.

Lawrence Hopewell Trail Corp. chairman David Sandahl thanked the DVRPC, Mercer County and the four municipalities for working together to expand the Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor.

The grant is a crucial step in helping to connect to those communities, added Lisa Serieyssol, the executive director of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail Corp.

“Trails and active transportation networks are essential infrastructure to address equitably the most pressing issues facing our region – from economic development to climate resiliency, mobility and pedestrian and bicycle safety,” Serieyssol said.

The Johnson Trolley, which is the basis for the Johnson Trolley Trail Corridor, was named after Albert Johnson. He operated the streetcar company that linked Trenton and Princeton. It began operating in 1902. It ceased passenger operations in 1940 and freight operations in 1973.

Portions of the former Johnson Trolley right-of-way have been converted into a pedestrian and bicycle path, but the construction of I-295 blocked the northern and southern legs from being joined.

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 funded by a $40,000 grant from the DVRPC.

The study, which was released in 2014, called for a bridge across I-295. The price tag ranged from $1.2 million to $8.1 million in 2014. The bridge would have been paid for with private funds or grants, and not taxpayer money.

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, according to the Parsons Brinckerhoff study.

Two additional options, which would have cost less money, called for designing shorter but more intricate bridges. The construction costs of a U-shaped, or switchback ramps and bridge, ranged from $6.6 million to $6.8 million in 2014.

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