Habitat overlooks. “Forest play” areas for kids. Gardening classes. Even rock climbing.

These are some of the prospective activities that planners are touting as part of a reconceived Bergen Arches mile-long abandoned rail corridor in Jersey City.

During a public briefing held at Dickinson High School and virtually Thursday night, the city’s Department of Infrastructure’s Planning Division shared ideas and images on how to re-adapt the 60-foot-wide rail corridor for public use.

The city has received a $100,000 state Transportation Department grant to design and build on- and off-road pedestrian pathways along the corridor.

The Arches was built in the early 1900s by the Erie Railroad which blasted out rock to lay tracks for passenger trains to run to the Jersey City waterfront. The corridor runs east-west, parallel to State Rt. 139, between the Journal Square and Heights neighborhoods. Passenger rail service ended in 1957, allowing for the growth of an urban forest.

Abandoned rails at Bergen Arches Jersey City
Abandoned rails running under the Bergen Arches

Today, planners are aiming to convert the deserted space into a greenway trail for pedestrians and bikers that will also accommodate the possible restoration of train service.

However, because the land is owned by NJ Transit, as successor to the Erie line, the rail and bus conveyor would have to grant access to the Arches for any public use, one city planner cautioned.

Just how far advanced NJ Transit may be in advancing that plan hasn’t yet been made known.

Still, planners remain hopeful that some type of compromise can be reached that would give the public an opportunity for some type of adaptive re-use of the corridor – much like what the city aims to do with a Conrail-owned property – the 6th Street Embankment – that once provided a rail pathway for several lines to and from the city waterfront.

Key to both projects is developing stairwells, ramps and/or elevator connections between street levels and openings to the corridor. For the Bergen Arches, this means scaling depths ranging from 40 to 80 feet.

Light green with red line down middle indicates the abandoned rail line running through the Bergen Arches

Other considerations would include things like emergency access and security, visitor amenities (bathrooms, for example) and space reserved for supply storage and staff, plus, allowing ample room for trains.

If there’s a way to deal with these variables, then, planners say, that can open the door to designing public programs, with special attention to be given to tieing those activities to schools and nonprofits located parallel to the corridor route.

To that end, planners said, visitors of all ages can learn about the heritage of rail traffic in Jersey City through exhibits and physical remnants of that history such as old rail ties and tracks remaining from the old Erie train operation.

School children can learn more about local ecology and nature by participating in indoor or outdoor farming and food education classes and/or plant nurseries.

Older students and adults could get lessons in climbing rocks inside the Arches and there may be opportunities for “immersive” experiences with nature by designing areas of total darkness.

Planners said they’ll schedule a final public discussion on the future of the Arches sometime next month before completing a final draft of a feasibility study that “will include recommendations on greenway design, access points, connections to other greenways, future transit options, funding sources and the next steps for advancing the vision.”

Until then, members of the public are invited to share their thoughts about the Arches by going to the online site for Bergen Arches Feasibility Study and scrolling down to “Jersey City Bergen Arches Survey.”

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...