An independent evaluation of problems at Cape May Seashore Lines by a state senator has found no misappropriation of public funds but does raise questions about the future of the rail service.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, found $5.6 million in federal and state grant money used to fix up the track was spent for its intended purpose. Van Drew investigated at the request of Lower Township, which has been upset that several railroad crossings are tying up traffic when trains have not run there for several years.
“The actual dollars, federal and state, everything is appropriate. The second piece of the puzzle is where are they going from here? The concern is whether they are able to run trains in the future,” Van Drew said.
The investigation uncovered concerns with the management of the rail line by Cape May Seashore Lines President Tony Macrie founded the enterprise to start a slow-speed rail line mostly geared for tourists between Cape May and Tuckahoe, which he later expanded to Richland in Atlantic County.
He restored train service to the area in 1996 but there are currently no trains running. Macrie said that is because metal thieves last winter stole railroad plates and spikes along 6,800 feet of track in Dennis Township. Arrests have been made in the case.
Macrie said he would like to runs trains south of this area but he can’t get equipment past the broken track.
“There’s no way to get one rail car over it. Everything is in Tuckahoe and we can’t get past it. The goal is later this year depending on how restitution and prosecution goes,” Macrie said.
Van Drew said he found a definite lack of communication between Macrie and public officials and “vagueness about Mr. Macrie’s plans for the future.” He received mixed reviews of Macrie’s performance as a businessman.
He called on the railroad to improve communication with elected officials, businesses, non-profits and the public.
“The business manager reviews appeared to range between an overestimation of his own abilities to being overly optimistic regarding projections and revenues,” Van Drew said.
Some are calling on Macrie to step aside and let somebody else try to run trains.
“I say enough is enough. He should give it to a legitimate operator,” said Lower Township Manager Mike Voll.
Voll said he wants more than an informal evaluation of the operation.
He would like to see an audit of how the federal and state grants were spent. Voll said that from the township’s perspective, the trains don’t run, motorists and school buses still have to stop at crossings, the tracks have weeds four feet high, and there are piles of discarded railroad ties. Voll said a rails-to-trails path for bicyclists and joggers would be a better use of the tracks.
“This guy has a personal train set between two counties at everybody’s expense,” Voll said.
Van Drew’s report, however, sided with Macrie over Voll on one issue. Voll had blamed Macrie for delays in dealing with work at two railroad crossings. Van Drew found the delays were due to “the recent reorganization” at the state Department of Transportation.
Macrie has some supporters. Anne Salvatore, who runs Historic Cold Spring Village, which has a railroad stop on the line, has had her problems with Macrie but wants everybody to help him restart the service.
“It never became what we all hoped it would be. We thought it would be a great people mover. People would park here and go to Cape May. We’d love Tony to be successful. If he can’t, we’d welcome anybody who can make it happen,” Salvatore said.
Van Drew said he is willing to “look at alternatives” such as allowing a competitor or a non-profit use the tracks but noted there is nobody “chomping at the bit” to compete with Macrie, who has a long-term lease with New Jersey Transit to use the tracks.
Salvatore acknowledged that Macrie is not great at public relations, but she said he loves trains and in today’s economy she doubts anybody else would be interested in running it.
“Our hope is Tony can reinvent the train line and get everything moving. I don’t think we can find anyone else to do it better,” Salvatore said.
The lease for the tracks runs until July 31, 2029, although Voll argues New Jersey Transit could get out of it.
Voll supplied copies of a 1991 agreement between Cape May Seashore Lines and New Jersey Transit that requires Macrie to run at least 24 one-way trips per year. Macrie, however, said a newer agreement was signed in 1999 without the requirement. He said New Jersey Transit is well aware of the Dennisville vandalism problem.
“It’s a theft. We’ve had discussions with the state,” Macrie said.
The track is in good shape north of there and Macrie said he hopes to run trains from Tuckahoe to Richland, in Buena Vista Township, this fall. Macrie said he would oppose anybody else taking over the railroad.
“I don’t want that to happen. I’m not going to let that happen. Without us, there would be no railroad. It could all come together as it used to be. We’re committed. We started the project and we’ll be there for it,” Macrie said.
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