As everyone already knows, tragedy struck the Hackensack River on December 25th. While thousands of our friends and supporters were celebrating the holidays, two veteran Jersey City police officers–who had volunteered to work so that their fellow officers could spend time with their loved ones–plunged off the open Lincoln Highway Bridge into the frigid water of the river. This avoidable accident could and should have been prevented.
At this time, the circumstances that led up to the accident are still under investigation. However, it has been established that none of the safety devices designed to protect motorists from attempting to cross the bridge when it is open to allow boats to pass underneath were operational. The failure of these devices has been largely linked to an accident that occurred on Friday, December 23.
That is when the first BIG mistake was made. The New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to keep the bridge, which connects Jersey City and Kearny, open to vehicular traffic. The rationale for this decision was that to close the bridge to vehicles would be a major inconvenience during the holiday weekend, even though there are three alternative routes between West Hudson and East Hudson County: the Newark Bay extension of the New Jersey Turnpike, the Pulaski Skyway and the Route 7 Bridge. It makes no sense whatsoever to unnecessarily place police officers in harm’s way simply for the convenience of the motoring public.
I strongly believe that when the safety equipment was rendered useless the bridge should have been raised to allow river traffic to continue while emergency repairs were made. Access to the bridge could have been blocked by using DOT dump trucks equipped with flashing warning devices while the repair crews focused on restoring safe operations.
The other side of the story, of course, is the continuing need to transport certain commodities in barges pushed or pulled by tugboats up and down the Hackensack River. I began receiving calls from reporters on Monday the 26th with questions regarding tug traffic on the river. At first I was disappointed at the quality of some of the questions, such as, “What would a tugboat be doing on the Hackensack River?” but, as I began to hear variations on that question from several different reporters, I realized that the average person doesn’t understand the role that our waterways play in the local economy.
With all of the improvements that have been made to our highway and rail systems in recent years, it is still economically and environmentally more responsible to move certain goods by water. One of those goods is fuel.
The Amerada Hess Corporation operates a gasoline and fuel oil tank farm in Bogota, NJ. Because the facility is supplied by barges originating from its refinery in Woodbridge on the Arthur Kill, Hess eliminates literally thousands of truck trips from our highways and local roads each year. Because tanker barges can transport upwards of 80 truckloads worth of product and be pushed upriver by one tugboat, 79 sources of air pollution are eliminated. From both a safety and environmental standpoint, it also makes sound sense because road transport has a much higher risk of accidents and causing fuel spills. Finally, if fuel barges were eliminated, the much higher cost of truck delivery would undoubtedly be passed on to consumers.
Perhaps the most important use of river transportation is the conveyance of coal to PSE&G’s Hudson Generating Station in Jersey City. Let me be clear that while we’re not happy with the fact that coal is burned in Hudson County in order to keep the lights on, until PSE&G decides to reconfigure the plant to burn natural gas, our ever-increasing appetite for electricity must be satisfied with the 3,500 tons of coal brought by each Express Marine, Inc. barge. Without operable bridges there is no practical way that the massive amounts of coal needed can reach the plant.
The Corning asphalt processing plant located on the Hackensack River in Kearny receives deliveries of hot asphalt by barge and even sometimes from a small ship called the Asphalt Trader. The vessels tie up at the company’s bulkhead and offload the hot asphalt through a steam fitted pipe. Because it makes good economic sense to deliver this material via marine transport, it is imperative that these high-temperature loads be allowed to move through the various lift bridges as quickly as possible.
The final barge-transported product is actually a byproduct of our civilization. Pretreated sewage sludge is barged from the Bergen County Utilities Authority plant in Little Ferry to the Passaic Valley Sewage Commissioners treatment plant at the mouth of the Passaic River in Newark. Without barges, all of that sludge would have to be placed in trucks and driven through Bergen, Hudson, and Essex counties on some of the most congested highways in the America. Just think what it would be like to be stuck in traffic alongside a truckload of sewage sludge--not to mention the consequences of a potential accident involving one of these loaded trucks.
In closing, I feel obligated to remind everyone that our rivers were and still are a major component of our transportation network, and that network is a very important contributor to our quality of life. If wildlife, recreational boaters, canoeists and kayakers can peacefully coexist with these commercial users of our river, then the motoring public must be willing to endure some minor inconvenience lest more lives be lost.
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