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Hamilton Station Alllllllll Aboard

This article by Robert Saxon was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 10, 1999. All rights reserved.

On Monday, February 22, the first day of another long

hard week for New Jersey Transit rail commuters, Hamilton Township’s

new train station opened for business. The station, the culmination

of a 20-year effort by Mayor Jack Rafferty (and some allies), offered

a glimmer of hope for commuters and a clear stimulus for further development

in New Jersey’s seventh largest municipality,

The NJT project, which cost $48 million, provides an impressive new

station building, parking for 1,600 vehicles, and a relatively hassle-free

way for commuters and day-trippers to get to New York — without

having to fight for a parking spot at the station or for a seat on

the train.

The station is closer than you would think: just three miles from

the intersection of 295 and Route 1, and just seven miles from the

Carnegie Center. The easiest access by car is from the Sloan Avenue

Westbound exit of I-295 (where the exit signs read, grandiosely, "To

NJ Transit Complex"). Tool along Sloan Avenue for a thousand feet

or so, and there it is on your right, all modern sparkle and spaciousness.

Business is not yet exactly booming, with the parking lot perhaps

one-fourth full on recent mornings, but word is getting around. Mid-day

riders are also taking advantage of the new facility; 30 or 40 folks

climbed aboard the 11:08 a.m. for New York when we visited the station

just two days after service began.

The station building is on the northbound side, and to cross the tracks

you use an overpass accessible by elevator or escalator. The overpass

is also a great place for railroad buffs, who can watch and photograph

the trains passing below.

The parking lot works differently in the morning and the afternoon.

It is laid out in a semicircle, so arriving passengers can walk in

a direct line to any spot along the northbound tracks without worrying

about being run over (later arrivals park further back). Southbound

commuters use the overpass that empties out in the center of the lot:

It has pedestrian-dedicated walks laid out in a radial pattern so

you can safely find your car.

With its large vaulted ceiling and some unattractive but vandal-proof

wire-grid seats, the Hamilton station has a cold, efficient feeling,

certainly not reminiscent of the gracious 19th century stations. In

contrast, the Princeton Junction station may not be a work of art,

but, inside, it has nice wooden seats and an appropriate scale.

NJT had challenged Harry Weese and Architects (HWA) of Chicago to

add some excitement to train travel, to put Hamilton on the map, and

to establish a new plateau of architectural excellence for train stations.

"The vision was to bring NJT into the 21st century, with state-of-the-art

durable materials used in a form directly related to the function

in a crisp new way," says John Corley, principal of the 52-year-old

firm. HWA had supervised the historic renovation of that turn-of-the-century

railroad marvel, Washington’s Union Station, but it also designed

the District’s Metro stations and has done transit stations in Buffalo,

Miami, and the early sections of the Los Angeles rapid transit system.

Corley says HWA avoids designing in a stylistic manner but focuses

instead on the needs of the site, and that Hamilton’s high ceiling

was predicated by the overpass. Designer David Munson and project

manager Jose Silva of HWA chose an overpass because, in contrast to

the grade levels at Princeton Junction station, the tracks are on

the same level as the parking lot. In addition, the station is located

in the Great Bear Swamp, and flooding would have been a major concern.

Another function of the high ceiling is to give a straight-line view

of the patrons on the overpass, in the glass enclosed stairwells,

and in the escalators to provide actual and perceived security. There

are no hidden spaces.

The amenities include restrooms and even a newsstand and snack

bar, but there is no ticket window. An NJT employee, on temporary

duty to welcome new users, told us that there was no prospect of having

one in the future either. Train tickets are dispensed from the same

sort of complicated machines that have been installed at Princeton

Junction and elsewhere on NJT. If you want information, you must either

pick up a schedule leaflet or try to get through to NJT by its ever-clogged

phone lines (or the Internet).

Initial complaints about no clock in the waiting room

were promptly satisfied, and there’s also a huge outside clock on

the station tower that is readily visible even from Sloan Avenue.

But a few bugs remain. Workers are still tidying up the roof and the

electrical systems. Parking is prepaid. You can buy a monthly permit

which costs $60 for "premium" spots (those closest to the

station) or $40 for those further away, Or, if you are a day user,

you have to feed money into machines that dispense, tokens costing

$3 for the day (which you then drop into still another machine). But

we discovered that several of the token machines wouldn’t accept bills

at all, and the one we finally got to take our $5 bill returned only

one dollar’s worth of change besides the token. For the present at

least, be warned.

All of NJT’s Northeast Corridor trains stop here, which adds about

two minutes to the Trenton-New York run. There’s no Amtrak service,

though we were assured that this remains a future possibility. So,

as matters stand, commuters who now use Princeton Junction, and have

the privilege of riding Amtrak "Clocker" trains into New York

on their cut-rate monthly passes (a privilege denied to passengers

who pay full NJT fare!) can’t take advantage of their fringe benefit

if they change over to Hamilton,

On the other hand, Hamilton has all the parking space you would want,

at all hours, and since inbound rush-hour trains now often leave Princeton

Junction with standees, Hamilton riders are at least assured of a

seat, even if it’s not quite as plush as those provided by Amtrak.

Though it’s not obvious to train passengers, a substantial part of

the same development off to the side of the station is NJT’s new bus

maintenance facility for the Trenton area. Replacing the decrepit

garage on East State Street in Trenton (itself a relic of Trenton

Street Railway’s trolley system), the 130,000 square-foot bus area

actually opened back in September, 1998. The presence of the bus facility

doesn’t mean that the new station is a true transit junction, though;

only the No. 608 to downtown Trenton actually serves the station.

But additional service is planned, including shuttles to Grounds for

Sculpture, which is participating in the project by erecting statuary

along the train line near the station: a welcome change from billboards.

How did all of this come about? As mentioned at the outset, much of

the credit must go to Jack Rafferty, who has been mayor of Hamilton

for 24 years. We interviewed him by phone the other day, our call

being sandwiched between his governmental duties and a wedding he

was about to perform. As he tells the story, back about 20 years ago,

then-Governor Brendan Byrne created a committee to study possible

improvements in the state’s commuter facilities. Hamilton was a top

choice to receive a new station. After all, the trains run right through

it, and the population even then was starting to rise (it’s 90,000

today).

Rafferty tried to get the state Department of Transportation to move

on the project, but there was opposition: mostly from Trenton, some

of whose politicians feared that a Hamilton train station would divert

traffic from the capital’s own newly-renovated station. The fact that

the two sides were in different political parties was probably a factor

as well, However, when Tom Kean got elected, the picture changed,

and DOT began to move forward. Efforts in the state legislature, notably

those of then-Assemblyman Anthony Cimino, helped too. Eventually,

Representative Chris Smith and Senator Frank Lautenberg, a staunch

public transit advocate, were able to bring in some federal money,

in addition to what was provided by New Jersey’s own Transportation

Trust Fund.

This snail’s-pace progress, by the way, is typical of most transportation

projects — they start off with a great idea, which gets put on

the shelf, then is pulled off, gets re-shelved, and may or may not

ever come to fruition. Look at the Secaucus rail interchange, the

Bayonne-Hoboken light rail line, and the proposed Trenton-Camden diesel

train connection for more examples. Given the troubled history of

such schemes, the success of Mayor Rafferty and his colleagues is

impressive.

Well, the time was certainly ripe. Both Princeton Junction and Trenton

are jammed with commuters, and Mercer County’s population continues

to rise. Rafferty, of course, is bullish on Hamilton, which has long

been a bedroom community but is now taking on more of an urban character.

The station, he says, will help the township’s image as an independent

entity. There are already several major industrial firms close to

the station; Seward Johnson’s Grounds for Sculpture — a pretty

much world-class art facility — is a mile away; and across from

the new station there is rising a 24-screen movie theater, which will

be the largest one on the entire East Coast. Lots of activity, and

for once the right infrastructure has been installed before development

crowds it out.

The new station will not, however, alleviate the overall congestion

on the Northeast Corridor. The problem raised by the booming commuter

rail business is two-fold: No more room in the tunnel that brings

NJT trains into Penn Station, and what to do with the people once

they get there.

Because the tunnel has just about reached its limits as to the number

of trains, NJT wants to get more people onto each train. It has just

proposed spending $1.3 billion for additional rail cars, increasing

the fleet from 484 to 714 over the next six years; 200 of these would

be double-deckers.

But the question of moving people through Penn Station, the origin

or destination of most passengers, remains unaddressed. If Amtrak

moves to a new station in the present General Post Office, that will

free up some space for NJT in the present Penn Station, but a major

renovation will be called for.

One part of the long-term solution would be the construction of a

second double-track tunnel under the Hudson River. Obviously an expensive

project, but considering the growth in traffic and the steady overall

prosperity in the metropolitan area, such a move seems inevitable.

The question is how to pay for it, and whether it can be completed

before the situation becomes one of perpetual passenger gridlock.

Meanwhile, with its new train station, Hamilton has a valuable new

asset, which will not only spur growth and take some pressure off

nearby stations, but will also attract commuters from Pennsylvania

and more southerly towns in New Jersey.

Twenty years and millions of dollars. It shows that perseverance pays

— at least, it did this time.

— by Robert Saxon

Hamilton Station, Sloan Avenue just west of I-295, Hamilton.

Schedule information 800-772-2222; http://www.njtransit.state.nj.us

or www.njcom/njtransit


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