High Marks for Transit Hubs

March 22, 2012


WANT to know which New Jersey train stations have the most plentiful supply of parking spaces relative to town population? There’s a list for that. Or what about stations in the areas with the greatest number of jobs? There’s a list for that. Or transportation hubs with the densest populations? There’s a list for that as well.

In fact, there are dozens of lists, charts and graphs that analyze land use, infrastructure, populations and living conditions surrounding all 243 transit stations in New Jersey. The extensive inventory is the result of a three-year study by NJ Future looking to stratify census data from neighborhoods near the state’s transit hubs with an eye toward directing potential development in those areas.

The timing of the study — which maps income, car ownership, employment, housing, commuter activity, downtown amenities and more — is propitious, given the many indicators that the population will continue to consolidate in urban and commuter town centers.

“It’s funny; the timing is working out so well,” said B. Timothy Evans, the research director at NJ Future, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on smart growth. After three years spent “putting this thing together,” he added, it is a stroke of luck that “the interest is exactly in this sector.”

The interest he cited is being evinced first and foremost by home shoppers. Real estate sales are consistently strongest in towns along New Jersey’s main commuter corridors; the economic downturn has not altered that. The latest survey on home prices conducted by the Otteau Valuation Groupfound that towns along the rail lines with New York City commutes of less than 50 minutes saw real estate values increase by 3.6 percent from 2010 to 2011, as compared with rural New Jersey, the weakest sector, which saw an 8.7 percent drop in home values.

The future, too, looks bright for the commuter corridor, according to another Otteau survey, which found that building permits in rail towns reached 49 percent of the total permits issued from 2009 to 2010, having grown from 24 percent in the 1990s.

Developers seeking to capitalize on this interest in transit hubs have for the last several years seen their enthusiasm and ambitious plans well rewarded by the state. Public financing for transit-oriented developments, once largely directed at municipalities, is today going directly to developers, in the form of tax credits.

New Jersey’s Transit Hub Tax Credit Program has provided nearly $1 billion in tax credits over the last three years to developers and business owners who have initiated sizable projects in nine cities deemed “distressed” and in need of investment.

Bestowed by the state’s Economic Development Authority, the tax credits are available to companies investing more than $50 million in projects within half a mile of one of the designated cities’ transit stations, and generating more than 250 full-time jobs. Commercial enterprises can receive up to 100 percent tax credit on their capital investment, paid out over 10 years, while residential projects can receive up to 35 percent tax credit on the investment, up from the former cap of 20 percent.

The program has facilitated projects like Teachers Village in Newark, Campbell’s Soup’s new headquarters in Camden and New Brunswick’s Gateway mixed-use development, said Timothy Lizura, a senior vice president of the development authority. “Developers have many options on where to put their resources,” he said. “Sometimes you have to provide the incentive.” The program is capped at $1.5 billion and concludes in January.

Another popular state program, called the Transit Village Initiative, supported two dozen municipalities seeking to rebuild neighborhoods around their transit stations. It lost its financing last summer, a victim of Gov. Christopher J. Christie’s line-item veto.

Joe Dee, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which administers the program, said the governor’s decision had been made in response to a very tight budget. “It wasn’t in any way a reflection of what the administration thought of transit villages and the benefits associated with them,” Mr. Dee said. “It was one of the tough choices that had to be made.” He added that his department had been encouraging current or future transit-village participants to seek funding through the state’s municipal aid program.

The Transit Village Initiative, which began in 1999, has designated 24 communities throughout the state for planning and financial assistance in revitalizing areas around their transit facilities to create mixed-use neighborhoods, with an emphasis on residential development.

To take one example, Somerville became a transit village in 2010, receiving a $100,000 grant to upgrade sidewalks in a redevelopment zone near the train station. With the Transit Village program losing its funding for the current fiscal year, Somerville will not be looking there for the $600,000 it needs to create an arts district between the train station and the Main Street retail center.

But Mayor Brian Gallagher isn’t worried. “We’re going to sniff it out somewhere else and we’ll get it,” he said. “We’ve had great success with this in the past, and we expect to in the future.”

As the transportation hub of Somerset County, Somerville has had success in attracting public and private support to its downtown redevelopment efforts. In the first phase of an $80 million development, a new Shop Rite store opened in the center of town last fall; remediation is ongoing at a 130-acre former landfill beside the train station that will eventually be home to as many as 1,100 housing units, and more than 100,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. New Jersey Transit, which owns 35 of the 130 acres, jump-started the redevelopment effort by spending $15.3 million on a new station.

“Money goes where an investment will earn a return,” Mayor Gallagher said. “Regardless of whether it’s the public sector or the private sector. And we’re the recipients of both.”