Merchantville Station

Merchantville, NJ can sustain and benefit from a rail link to Philadelphia…

With population density rising in southern New Jersey, the town of Merchantville has gradually matured into an inner suburb of Philadelphia, or a “peri-urban” community, a cross between urban and suburban.

Merchantville is a pocket of beautiful homes, big yards and a small-town feel amidst increasingly urban surrounds.  As many locals note, this is an asset to the community that can benefit businesses, property owners and residents for years to come.

Five miles east of Philadelphia, proximity was the initial impetus for Merchantville’s development by four “merchants” in the 19th century.  Also contributing was the town’s rail link to Philadelphia and Camden and other NJ suburbs including Pennsauken, Maple Shade and Moorestown.  Merchantville’s business district revolved around its station.

As was the case throughout many American towns and cities, the rise of the automobile bankrupted railroad companies as people chose cars over trains.  Furthermore, many American cities, including Philadelphia and Camden, hollowed out with mass closures of factories and industrial facilities marking a period of inner city decay.

Rather quickly, there was less reason to have a direct link to Philadelphia.  If anything, there was compelling reason to cut it off.  As such, Merchantville Station closed in the early 1970s and has since been replaced by a strip of green park.

The strip-park is a nice visual addition to the town.  However, perhaps outweighing additional green space in an already leafy community is the economic opportunity contained in the prospect of re-commissioning the rail line, particularly in the wake of Philadelphia’s resurgence.  Please note that by “rail line” I mean a line running from Philadelphia through Camden, Merchantville, Pennsauken, Maple Shade and Moorestown, much of which would trace the line of old if not completely.

Points of Reference
To Merchantville residents, the notion of recommissioning the train might seem far fetched but other New Jersey communities in the state’s north , like Montclair, are good points of reference.  Like Merchantville, Montclair had an abandoned rail corridor running through it.  As the community was absorbed into the Greater NYC metropolitan region and became peri-urban, discussion awoke about commissioning a rail link to New York City.

In 1991 New Jersey Transit conducted a feasibility study and found the line would be financially sustainable.  Eleven years later, the Montclair State University Line opened to the public heralding an overwhelmingly positive and transformative economic impact on the community that is still underway today.

Montclair has a reputation in North Jersey and within NYC as an attractive place to live and as a thriving community.  Property investors enjoy above average return on investment and the school system is sought after.  Interestingly, this reputation is often conveyed in the context of “resurgence”, one coinciding with the re-opening of the town’s rail link.  Locals tell stories about areas “you wouldn’t go to ten years ago” that are now hipsterville.  The resurgence clusters around Montclair’s rail line.

Closer to home, consider South Jersey’s PATCO rail system connecting Camden, Collingswood, Westmont, Haddon Township, Haddonfield, etc. with Philadelphia.  These towns, as property markets and business districts, have consistently outperformed Merchantville over the last 50 years with the period following the 2008 housing crisis marking a particularly sharp divergence.

PATCO attracts professionals with city wages and higher purchasing power.  Such forces drive property values upward.  Furthermore, PATCO is good for business, attracting entrepreneurs and consumers alike.  It should be no wonder that Haddon Avenue is thriving parallel to the PATCO line.

Many South Jersey locals remark at the resurgence of Collingswood, Westmont and the longevity of prosperous Haddonfield.  Urbanists consistently link infrastructure with affluence.  The positive economic impact of rail is a global phenomenon and is well documented.  Wealthy peri-urban communities tend to have strong commuter rail linkages with the core of their metropolis.

It’s worth noting that rail alone doesn’t create economic vitality.  Instead rail provides momentum, a compliment to and platform from which a community can showcase its existing, attractive endowment.  As any local can tell you, Merchantville has a lot to offer, particularly a unique, Victorian small town charm closely juxtaposed with a cosmopolitan city.

Zoom Out – It’s all about Infrastructure
Locals might support a new rail linkage to Philadelphia were they to appreciate how relatively neglected their region is within the context of the Philadelphia metropolitan region and New Jersey. The satellite photographs below provide an opportunity to view Merchantville and South Jersey from above and appreciate its close tie with Philadelphia. Merchantville is as close to Center City as the southern tip of South Philly.

Merchantville, NJ
Satellite photos of the Philadelphia metropolitan region with labels (left) and without (right). Merchantville is circled in red in the image on right. Images courtesy of  The state line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey runs down the Delaware River, denoted with the dashed line.

Despite its proximity, South Jersey is a neglected portion of the metro because of the state line segmenting the metro.  That is, the core city of Philadelphia is in Pennsylvania, while South Jersey is out of state in New Jersey.  From the perspective of infrastructure provision, Philadelphia has no mandate to advocate for a region that really should be part of its turf and likely would have been had the founders known how truly colossal cities would become.

As an example of neglect consider the image below, featuring a map of commuter-subway style train lines serving the Philadelphia region.

Map of the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority commuter rail network. Image courtesy of SEPTA
Map of the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority commuter rail network. Image courtesy of SEPTA

In this image New Jersey is on the far right of the map, on the east side of the Delaware River, partly covered by the legend.  Neglect is conveyed in the lopsided distribution of commuter rail throughout the metropolitan region.  Pennsylvania has several lines whereas South Jersey has one (in red).  To be fair, South Jersey has 2 other lines run by NJ Transit (featured in a map below), yet the imbalance remains.

South Jersey’s experience is contrasted by urban sprawls fully contained in one state.  The same segregation of infrastructure does not occur.  Comparable rail networks fan outwards equitably.

No where to call home
When an urban sprawl is segmented by a legislative boundary, such as a state line, the impact is huge and usually negative, particularly for the out-of-state sister city and surrounds.  For example, South Jersey is significantly lacking infrastructure because of the state-line.  More precisely, South Jersey lacks a central advocate.

Normally the core city or home state of a metropolitan region advocates to state and federal governments respectively for the provision of infrastructure to improve its parts.  From the look of the commuter train network, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have good historical track records of doing this for their side of the Delaware River.  Yet neither has a business case to justify the same advocacy for South Jersey despite proximity, interdependence and the fact that Philadelphia probably has a better appreciation for South Jersey’s needs than Trenton, New Jersey’s capital, an hour away.

I previously mentioned that South Jersey is neglected not only within the context of the Philadelphia metro region, but also within the state of New Jersey.  Again, maps convey my point relative to New Jersey.  The below image of the NJ Transit rail system displays the high relative level of investment enjoyed by North Jersey.

Map of NJ Transit Rail System Map. Image Courtesy of NJ Transit

While North Jersey has 4 times more residents than the south, North Jersey has over 5.5 times as many stations.  Further, based on a comparison between the population density map featured below and the NJ Transit Rail map, South Jersey is underserved and should have more links with Philadelphia.  The best places to rebalance the scales are those communities literally built around now decommissioned rail lines with deep historical ties to them.

New Jersey Population Density Map
New Jersey Population Density Map

Merchantville Station
I advocate for a transformational change but it’s not a choice between transformation and stasis.  Locals should consider the following:  How has Merchantville changed in the last 50 years?

Here are a series of facts: Merchantville is a town that has experienced the steady erosion of infrastructure.  It lost its rail line; it lost its high school; it has lost portions of its territory to neighboring towns. Loss of infrastructure is rarely positive. On the contrary, lack of infrastructure defines impoverished communities; it is what pushes those with means away.

Merchantville sits on a rare opportunity, something worthy of consideration by those with money on the line and emotional ties to the community. Granted, Merchantville cannot build a rail line on its own but it can kick-off the discussion, gather neighboring community leaders and collectively advocate to the county, NJ transit and the state to conduct a feasibility study.  That’s a start.

If the train comes back, yes, Merchantville will become busier.  Businesses will thrive, property values will rise, and parking will become more competitive.  The good news is that thriving communities are pleasant.  I refer readers to New Jersey towns like Collingswood, Haddonfield, Maplewood, Millburn and Montclair.  Should you doubt the merits of rail in Merchantville ask a resident of these sought after communities what they’d think of ripping up PATCO or NJ Transit.  Prepare for an earful.