In Christie’s Last Days, Hoboken Waterfront Tussle Drags On
Posted January 11, 2018 6:37 p.m. EST
One of the last official acts of New Jersey’s outgoing governor, Chris Christie, may be to have his cash-strapped statewide transit agency pay about $12 million to buy a maintenance facility for boats that it does not have.
New Jersey Transit, the much-maligned operator of commuter trains and buses, wants to acquire the only remaining dry docks in Hoboken for the exclusive use of a privately held ferry company, New York Waterway. If the agency goes through with the purchase, it will do so over the strenuous objections of Hoboken’s new mayor, Ravinder S. Bhalla, and his predecessor, Dawn Zimmer, who is a member of the transition team of Christie’s successor, Philip D. Murphy.
Murphy has chosen a commissioner of transportation who will chair the board of directors of New Jersey Transit as of next week. But that may be a few days too late for the plan’s opponents, many of whom want the waterfront site turned into a public park.
The agency’s board had been scheduled to vote on the purchase Wednesday morning, but that meeting was abruptly canceled and rescheduled, first for Friday and then for Monday, which will be Christie’s last full day as governor and is a state holiday. The postponement provided Bhalla and his allies with an additional 48 hours to try to block a sale they say is a political favor to a successful company and an attempt to circumvent Hoboken’s ability to decide how land within its borders should be used.
Bhalla called the postponed vote “a tremendous victory for Hoboken, and more important, for good government.” He said that “hitting the pause button on this rushed and ill-conceived plan” would allow New Jersey Transit, under new leadership, to reconsider the idea, using “a deliberative and transparent planning process that considers input from all stakeholders, including the public.”
The delayed vote was just the latest twist in the long struggle for control of the last vestige of Hoboken’s industrial shoreline. Once lined with working docks teeming with longshoremen — a rough trade captured in the 1954 movie “On the Waterfront” — the city’s Hudson River waterfront is now lined with parks, luxury condominiums and office buildings.
Long gone are the Bethlehem Steel shipyard, the Lipton tea factory and the Maxwell House coffee plant. Union Dry Dock was the last holdover.
Zimmer had attempted to work out a deal to acquire the 3-acre waterfront property where the company had operated a barge-repair facility for many years. But after those talks broke down last summer, Zimmer prepared to use the city’s power of eminent domain to take the site.
New York Waterway, which operates ferry service between several terminals in New Jersey and Manhattan, surprised Zimmer and Bhalla by purchasing Union Dry Dock’s facility for $11.5 million in November. The ferry company, which has its home base just up the river in Weehawken, wants to use the site to repair, store and refuel its fleet of ferries.
Hoboken has challenged New York Waterway’s permit application for the site with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. The city has argued that the site would be much busier, with ferries coming and going most of the day to fill their gas tanks and unload wastewater.
Even if Waterway received the permits it would need to operate there, Hoboken could try to use eminent domain. That is where New Jersey Transit comes in. As a state agency, its ownership would trump Hoboken’s power to take the property, city officials said.
Although the transit agency does not operate any ferries of its own or have any control of Waterway or the fares it charges — as much as $9 for an eight-minute ride across the river — it is planning to buy the site and lease it back to the ferry company. Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Transit, said she could not divulge the terms of the proposed deal until after the board voted. There are five voting board members, including three who are allies of Christie, a Republican.
Snyder said the agency had statutory responsibility to embark on capital projects and make improvements that “support robust ferry service in the trans-Hudson corridor.” She added that “optimizing the availability and use of ferries will be a crucial part of a coordinated transportation strategy to meet future travel needs of New Jersey residents.”
New Jersey Transit has relied on the ferry company to help get commuters across the Hudson when train service was disrupted, as it was for several weeks last summer.
Pat Smith, a spokesman for Waterway, said the company would pay more than $100,000 in annual rent to New Jersey Transit and intended to invest more than $10 million in the property.
In November, Waterway’s chairman, Armand Pohan, told Hoboken’s City Council that it would be a mistake to try to take the site because, in addition to paying fair value for the property, the city would have to find another location for the facility.
“Good luck to you,” Pohan said, according to a copy of his remarks provided by Smith. “Because after looking for the past 10 years, I can safely say that there is no other suitable deepwater site anywhere between Fort Lee and lower Jersey City.”
Hoboken officials have pointed to Bayonne, whose waterfront has more industrial sites, including a large dry dock, as a more suitable place for the ferry facility. Bhalla said he appreciated the role the ferry company had played in the region’s transportation network and was willing to help it find a new base — just not in his city.
Alluding to the possibility of a final-days decision by New Jersey Transit to buy the Union Dry Dock site, he said, “Any further attempts to subvert this process will be met with fierce resistance from me, and I pledge to use every resource at my disposal to protect Hoboken’s interests.”