In November 2017, Governor-elect Phil Murphy with his political allies Hoboken Mayor-elect Ravi Bhalla and then Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. Murphy came to Hoboken to thank voters after his election.

 FBW | November 6, 2018

In January 2018, in the final days of the Christie administration, Hoboken elected officials enlisted the aid of Governor-elect Murphy in getting an item removed from the NJ Transit Board agenda: the $12 million acquisition of the Union Dry Dock property for use as a diesel ferry maintenance and refueling station. The City of Hoboken had plans to purchase this property to complete one of the final links in Hoboken contiguous, public waterfront park.

On January 13, three days before being sworn in as governor, Phil Murphy stated: “Out of fairness to the taxpaying public, this vote must be postponed and NJT’s Board must follow a thoughtful approach that listens to all voices including those of local residents and elected officials.” He called the proposed acquisition “irresponsible.”

Two and a half months later, however, the Hoboken community was stunned when Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla received a letter from newly appointed NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett stating that the NJ Transit Board of Directors was slated to approve the acquisition of Union Dry Dock at its April meeting. No substantive discussions between state and local officials had preceded this action.

Hoboken residents and their elected representatives were left scratching their heads. How could Governor Murphy, who was a close political ally of Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, just several months into his administration reverse course so abruptly?

Lobbying reports filed for the first quarter of 2018 with New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) reveal that Roger Bodman, the managing partner at Public Strategies Impact, representing NY Waterway, held meetings pertaining to Union Dry Dock with NJ Transit’s Executive Director Kevin Corbett and Chief of Government & External Affairs Paul Wyckoff; NJDOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti and her Chief of Staff Jay Jimenez; and a number of people from the governor’s office: Deputy Chief Counsel Parimal Garg, Mary Maples and John Spinello.

An October 31 article in The Record “Meet Phil Murphy’s inside man: The guy with access to the governor” revealed that Brendan Gill, who managed Murphy’s successful run for governor, emailed the governor’s office. In December 2017, after the election, Gill’s firm, the BGill Group, partnered with Public Strategies Impact. Gill has acknowledged working on a “public affairs and communication project regarding the dry dock issue.”

Gill’s email was sent to Murphy’s chief counsel Matt Platkin on March 12 stating “FYI” and attaching a letter claiming NY Waterway must vacate its Weehawken maintenance/refueling facility by June 1. Most of this facility is a over the Hudson River on 26 acres of land owned by Arthur Imperatore, Sr. through Romulus Development Corp.  Imperatore is also the owner of NY Waterway that continues to operate at the Weehawken location despite the contention that it was to vacate by June. Repairs and storage of NY Waterway ferries also take place at various other locations along the Hudson River coastline.

Brendan Gill, also the President of the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, took a relatively unknown candidate with no prior political experience and bested the powerful State Senate President, Stephen Sweeney in the primary and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in the general election. This past May, Brendan Gill hosted a political fundraiser in Belleville that featured Governor Phil Murphy. At this event, the governor said of the man that managed his campaign, “I wouldn’t be governor without him.”

The January 15th and April 4th NJ Transit Board meetings were packed with overflow crowds of Hoboken residents opposing the acquisition of the dry dock site by NJ Transit led by Mayor Ravi Bhalla and other elected officials. At the April meeting, the acquisition resolution was again pulled from the agenda. Governor Murphy then promised to conduct an alternate site study for locating the ferry facility but also required the City of Hoboken to withdraw its ordinance to acquire the Union Dry Dock through eminent domain.

The Fund for a Better Waterfront (FBW) filed an OPRA request with NJ Transit requesting any prior studies on locating the ferry maintenance/refueling facility. In May, this request was fulfilled, producing a 2009 NJ Transit study that ranked five locations ahead of the Union Dry Dock property. First, ranked well ahead of the others, was the Hoboken Terminal on NJ Transit property, one of the state’s premier transportation hubs with access to ferries, trains, buses and light rail. Two sites in Weehawken ranked number two and three, and industrial sites in Jersey City and Bayonne followed. Throughout all of the recent controversy, no one from the state voluntarily divulged the existence of this rigorous, objective study.

The Union Dry Dock site, formerly owned by a barge repair company, has been for sale for a number of years. FBW has pushed for the public acquisition of this property for use as a public park and in July of 2017 submitted a petition with over 2,000 signatures supporting the park proposal. It is one of the few remaining parcels that would complete Hoboken’s public waterfront park that has been in the making for the past twenty-five years.

The City of Hoboken, unfortunately, was slow to act and NY Waterway – without informing any of Hoboken’s elected officials – bought the prime piece of real estate in November of 2017 for $11.5 million. NY Waterway had earlier worked out a deal with NJ Transit – again, without the knowledge of Hoboken’s mayor and other officials – to buy the property and lease it back to them for use as a ferry maintenance/refueling facility.

Public and local political opposition to this proposed industrial activity at this site has been overwhelming. The dry dock is situated between three public parks: Maxwell Place, Castle Point and Elysian. This is a prime location for kayaking, skateboarding, running and strolling at the waterfront. There are thousands of residential units within a several block area. An Army Corps of Engineers public hearing on NY Waterway’s permit drew over 400 people, nearly all of whom opposed locating the ferry facility there.

Unlike the 2009 analysis, there has been no substantive discussions between state and local officials since April concerning the alternate site analysis that the Governor promised to conduct. The governor has not issued any public statements concerning this controversy since he took office.

Related Stories

Meet Phil Murphy’s inside man: The guy with access to the governor The Record 10-31-2018

Gov. Phil Murphy, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla at odds over Union Dry Dock vote – The Record 4-3-2018
The site that no one knew about

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