Sunday, January 11, 2009

Suffern from the Thruway

Planetizen links to a New York Times article about the Rockland County village of Suffern, which has seen a large increase in its fortunes over the past twenty years. The article doesn't mention how much Suffern has suffered from its location as two major highways were built around it. It also doesn't acknowledge how the town has benefited from public investments in transit service, particularly over the past 10-15 years.

Suffern sits at the southern end of the Ramapo Pass, a narrow gorge that's the only inland route between New York City and the Hudson Valley. That's why the three New Jersey branches of the Erie Railroad converged to one in Suffern, and why so many roads have been built through here. In the 1920s the States of New York and New Jersey built Route 17 just west of Suffern. In 1955 the New York State Thruway was constructed through the northern end of the town, and in 1994 Interstate 287 was extended to the southwest. These highway bypasses contributed enormously to the use of cars in the town and the decline of the downtown area.

To get to Manhattan by train, the only option used to be to go all the way to Hoboken and take the PATH or ferry. The trains made all stops, and train and ferry service were infrequent. But even then, bus service was convenient and well-patronized - and produced a nice profit for the private Short Line operator - because of the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane (established in 1970) and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In the 1990s, yuppies from Manhattan began to discover Hoboken, leading to an increase in ferry service. In 2003 New Jersey Transit opened a $415 million transfer station at Secaucus that allowed passengers to switch to Penn Station-bound trains, cutting 20-30 minutes off of some trips. The resulting increase in ridership allowed NJ Transit to run more trains. Now, between 5:00 and 9:00 AM there are three or four (PDF) trains an hour from Suffern to Hoboken, some of them making only one stop between Suffern and Secaucus. There is service at least hourly between 6:00 AM and 11 PM seven days a week.

The fortunes of Suffern were established with the building of the first roads and railroads through the Ramapo Pass, but they then fell with the building of bypasses. What has brought Suffern up again is the construction of transit improvements.

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