Business up slightly in towns along River Line

It’s been eight years since passengers first boarded the River Line, the 34-mile-long light rail linking Camden to Trenton. The rail line was sold as an economic engine to revive sleepy towns. Has the billion dollar project worked?

This is the second of a two-part series examining the transportation and economic impacts of the River Line over the last eight years. We continue the series with a look at the towns and businesses along the River Line.

It’s been eight years since passengers first stepped onto the River Line, the 34-mile-long light rail that connects Camden to Trenton. New Jersey chose to build the rail line hugging the Delaware River and so had to do it without federal dollars.

There are 20 stations along the River Line. The first stop, heading south from Trenton, is Bordentown City, a Revolutionary War-era town of neatly kept homes and stores. In Bordentown, Farnsworth Avenue offers an atmosphere not unlike that of Philadelphia’s Old City.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We’re a historical town, but at the same time we have a lot of business … little stores, antique shops, and you know restaurants,” says Santiago Orosco. “We have a lot of things to offer.”

The owner of Under the Moon Café, a small, colorful eatery featuring old-world recipes from Argentina, says business is good. “But not necessarily because of the train,” he adds.

“I recall that in all the six years, at least to me, only two parties — one of four, one of three — mentioned that they came from other towns, through the River Line,” Orosco says.

Next door, at the Square Peg Round Hole consignment shop, owner Woody Speakman is a fan.

“Oh, the River Line’s been a boon to us,” Speakman says. “We’re relatively new in the area, we opened last July, and we’ve had a lot of people who said they’ve come on the River Line, to see Bordentown, possibly for the first time.”

And just across the street, in a tiny, narrow storefront, Bordentown Guitar Rescue owner Michael Virok sees the River Line as an important tool. With the right promotion, he says, it could help more people find what he calls the state’s best-kept secret.

“River Line’s a great access from other cities to our small town,” Virok says. “It brings people who wouldn’t necessarily drive to our town right into the heart of our little city!”

The map above shows the 20 stops along the 34-mile River Line. Click the pins for station information and pictures.

Next stop: Riverside

With more of an open “Main Street, America” feel, Riverside features pizza places, liquor stores, a tire shop, and a number of empty storefronts.

The centerpiece is the Café Madison, an upscale restaurant.

“The Café Madison is a dream here in Burlington County,” says spokeswoman Christine Patton. “It almost feels like you work for Donald Trump in a sense, because it’s like being in Atlantic City or New York or Philadelphia, but being in a blue-collar town.”

Patton says some patrons are traveling from Trenton on the River Line to dine at the restaurant.

“We get local business when they have the pub crawls on weekends, on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon, but not a whole lot,” she said.

In fact, a number of Riverside business owners say there’s been no discernible increase in foot traffic, though the line’s potential is exciting.

Dominic Villari, who owns Barracuda’s Bait and Tackle, is on the board of the Riverside Business Association.

“I think to have a mass transit system like that in Riverside, it’s kind of like having good schools. It’s a nice thing to have, it raises property values, it’s just another thing that helps us sell potential residents,” Villari said. “And, of course, that keeps our property values up and it keeps our residential values more stable.”

As the River Line was being designed, the hope was it would spur renovation of Riverside’s most iconic building, the old Watch Case factory, whose historic tower looms over the town. It would be a centerpiece of redevelopment, which would include a “transit village” with housing within walking distance from the train.

So far, those plans have not panned out.

Coming into Palmyra Borough

The borough has been attempting a rebirth for a number of years. Anthony Fratto, head of the town’s business and community alliance, says he’s seen a number of new businesses open recently on his block.

His store, Anthony Jewelers, sits across the street from the River Line station. While Fratto’s not sure the train has helped Palmyra’s business resurgence, he’s smitten with the line’s “potential.”

“I could take this go up to Trenton, transfer to the Northeast Corridor trains, go to Newark airport and go to Antwerp to buy my diamonds!” he says. “Starting my trip right here with the light rail in Palmyra.”

While the light rail is generally liked by small-business owners, they don’t believe it’s had a huge impact — yet.

There’s new development associated with the River Line in Bordentown Township, a few minutes south of Bordentown City. New Jersey Transit is building another station as a developer plans a large community of shops and apartments centered around the stop. And there’s industrial development planned for Florence and Cinnaminson, according to the transit agency.

So the story of the River Line continues to unfold, and NJ Transit and planners will certainly consider its lessons as they revisit the idea of another light rail line, from Camden south to Glassboro. That proposal has the potential of luring drivers off the always-congested Route 55 corridor.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal