The cities of Orange and East Orange will receive assistance through the federal Thriving Communities Program to explore ways to implement improvements that will better connect their north and south sections across the divide of Interstate Route 280. This will enhance safety for walkers and bikers, livability and economic development, among other benefits.
The improvements were identified in a 2017 Freeway Drive & Station Area Safety and Public Realm Study
which was conducted by Essex County under NJTPA’s Subregional Studies Program
. The study envisioned transforming Freeway Drive into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly multimodal thoroughfare. Currently it consists of east and west roadways at grade flanking I-280, which is depressed into a cut. Among other elements, the improvements would include dedicated bike lanes, new medians, street trees, upgraded lighting and public art. The thirteen bridges across I- 280 would be resized based on traffic volumes, with new traffic controls and sidewalk enhancements (including improved ADA compatibility) at intersections.
A key study goal was identifying ways to improve safe access to the three train stations – Orange, Brick Church and East Orange stations. An estimated 25 percent of area residents commute by transit. The study recommended phased implementation of the various improvements, and offered a long term vision of capping portions of the interstate to create new parks and development opportunities.
Under the award of assistance through the Thriving Communities Program, the cities will partner with the non-profit Housing and Neighborhood Development Services, Inc. (HANDS)
to explore ways to advance the improvements – including preparing applications for grants under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)
. They will also explore deploying innovative community engagement, workforce development, and clean technology strategies. Federally-designated “Capacity Builder” organizations, such as the Rocky Mountain Institute, will provide oversight and guidance.
One potential IIJA funding opportunity is the federal Reconnecting Communities program which aims to help reconnect communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure. Orange and East Orange faced such an economic loss, along other detrimental impacts, with the construction of Interstate 280 and Freeway Drive in the 1960s.
The 2017 study found that “Freeway Drive creates a significant physical, visual, and psychological divide between the residential areas to the south and the commercial areas and train stations to the north.” In addition, open space and recreational opportunities, it said “are almost non-existent” within the corridor. The roadway itself has greater capacity than is needed for its typical daily traffic volumes resulting in excessive vehicle speeds and danger to pedestrians.
The award of assistance under the Thriving Communities Program recognizes that the proposed improvements could become the kind of “transformative project” in an under-resourced and disadvantaged community the program was designed to support.