By Ron Leir
A proposal by NJ Transit to build a backup power system in South Kearny to run its trains in cases of emergencies like another Superstorm Sandy threatens to derail a redevelopment plan that could generate big tax ratables for Kearny and Hudson County, officials said.
The plan by NJ Transit reportedly focuses on a large Kearny meadows tract that includes all or part of the Koppers (Seaboard) Coke Peninsula Redevelopment Area which the Hudson County Improvement Authority has been actively seeking to market on behalf of itself, the Town of Kearny and Tierra Solutions, the other landowner involved.
On Jan. 13, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority voted to endorse NJ Transit’s application to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration to finance a “microgrid electrical power system as an additional component of Superstorm Sandy Recovery and Resiliency Program.”
The rail agency would look to tap a portion of a $3 billion allocation funded on a competitive basis under the Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program and Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 for the mid-Atlantic and East Coast regions.
The resolution passed by the NJTPA board says the rail agency proposes to “partner with the U.S. Department of Energy and DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories to design ‘NJ TransitGrid,’ a firstof- its-kind microgrid which will support the use of public transit in … Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties along critical transportation corridors.
“The microgrid will also employ distributed generation technologies such as fuel cells, combined heat and power, and solar with storage … to provide resilient, highly reliable power to support the operations of the transit system and critical transit infrastructure.”
Applications for this federal funding source are due March 27.
The Kearny Town Council and Hudson County Board of Freeholders each passed resolutions last week opposing NJ Transit’s application, arguing that the placement of an electrical grid on the meadows property would have a “chilling” effect on the HCIA’s current negotiations with prospective developers.
Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos said he came to learn of the rail agency’s intentions in early February from the HCIA.
The resolution passed by the freeholders says that NJ Transit “has, from time to time, expressed interest in acquiring the Koppers Seaboard Site to utilize it for transportation infrastructure purposes.”
The HCIA has sued NJ Transit to recover more than $1 million it says it spent in assisting the agency in exploring potential “transportation infrastructure purposes” in connection with the now-dead rail tunnel project.
And, according to Freeholder Bill O’Dea, it was during mediation of that litigation that NJ Transit advised HCIA negotiators that if they got federal funding, they’d look to acquire the Koppers site.
“We’re against that because we want to put ratables on that property,” O’Dea said. “We’d fully support funding for other sites where NJ Transit could put a grid.”
Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, who is chairman of the NJTPA, voted for the endorsement application.
Asked to explain his action, DeGise said that when the information on NJ Transit’s proposal was initially submitted to the NJTPA’s Project Prioritization Committee, which he then headed, he “didn’t know” the microgrid was proposed for the Koppers site.
“When it came up for a vote at the January meeting, I did know,” DeGise said. NJ Transit had made known its intentions during a litigation mediation session with the HCIA, he said, “and when it came before the full board for the vote, “I expressed my displeasure with [NJ Transit] about it.”
“However,” DeGise added, “I told them I’d support [their application] because it’s a big deal regional project … I didn’t want to scuttle it. … What, I’m going to stop New Jersey from getting $1 billion [reportedly the estimated project cost] to support rail infrastructure? That would be irresponsible on my part.”
At the same time, DeGise said, “If that’s the only place [NJ Transit] can put [the grid], I realize they have the power of eminent domain and they’re going to have to condemn it. They’ll have to buy it or beat it [because] I’m still a proponent of bringing jobs and ratables to that property. … Between 2007 and 2010, we spent $1,025,000 to help them after they told us they needed our property as a rail yard and, after the ARC project was killed, they walked away.” Since then, “they’ve put $500,000 on the table,” he said, but the HCIA lawsuit is still ongoing. “Now they’re throwing the rug out from under us again.”
Because of legal restrictions that prevent full disclosure of the HCIA negotiations with prospective developers for the peninsula site, O’Dea said he couldn’t provide specific details on those discussions but he did say that the talks involved “two major port logistics developers who have submitted substantial proposals to develop the [peninsula] site.”
According to O’Dea, “Each [of the proposals] would create a minimum of in excess of 1,500 permanent jobs,” resulting from “$150 million worth of construction that would generate between $1.5 million and $2 million a year in tax revenue for Kearny and, depending on whether a tax abatement was involved, between $100,000 to $250,000 or $300,000 a year in revenues for the county.”
O’Dea said that “90%” of the peninsula land owned by the HCIA has been environmentally remediated while the Kearny-owned portion would require much more work. “Responsible parties,” rather than developers, would be looked to for cleanup costs, he said.
As the NJ Transit application process continues, O’Dea said the HCIA “can and should move the development process along and try to finalize a deal” to put itself in a “stronger” position in trying to sway federal legislators to do whatever they can do to set aside NJ Transit’s proposal.
When the question was put to NJ Transit spokesman William Smith as to the exact whereabouts proposed for the grid, Smith said: “The project is still in the study and initial design phase.
“Previously, NJ Transit has stated that it could make use of existing railroad rights-of-way to transmit power between any potential generation site as well as key facilities and rail lines in Jersey City, Kearny, Secaucus, Hoboken, Harrison and Newark. ….”
Smith said that, “Electrical microgrids can supply highly-reliable power during storms or other times when the traditional centralized grid is compromised … [and could] facilitate emergency evacuation-related activities.”
Asked if the agency had considered applying for funding to raise the elevation of its meadows rail yard in South Kearny to prevent damage to rail cars from flooding, as happened during Sandy, Smith said the agency “has installed Trap Bag mobile flood barriers which will protect four power substations at the Meadows Maintenance Complex, including the Rail Operations Center, from the impacts of flooding, as well as the Newark Light Rail.
“Trap Bags are used for flood control along Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, in the Rockaways, as well as parts of Long Island and Staten Island. More than eight million pounds of sand has filled these six-foot temporary flood barriers, all which will remain in use until the substations are permanently raised.”