New Jersey transportation officials hope a construction project in Camden County will have a big impact on the Atlantic City Rail Line.

Last week, NJ Transit approved the final phase of a $32 million transit center project at the site in Pennsauken where Atlantic City trains cross a light rail line that runs along the Delaware River between Camden and Trenton.

The project, proposed in 2002 and begun in 2009, will provide a direct link to the Atlantic City Rail Line for millions of Northeast Corridor train riders. A January 2008 NJ Transit report projected the Pennsauken station could increase ridership for the Atlantic City line by 20 percent by 2015.

If that increase occurs - and at least one transit expert says that's a big if - it would mean as many as 130,000 new travelers could make their way into the region each year.

"We think the rail connection to Atlantic City is a very positive development," said Susan Ney Thompson, interim executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which oversees the resort's Tourism District. "We see it having a positive impact on both tourism and work force opportunities."

Right now, it is not easy for Atlantic City-area residents to get to New York or anywhere along the Northeast Corridor by rail, or for people to get from there to here. The Atlantic City Rail Line is the only commuter line that requires two or more transfers to access the broader NJ Transit rail system.

The casino-funded ACES train from Atlantic City to New York City runs only on weekends, and did not run this winter due to low ridership.

Transportation analyst Anthony Marino, of Egg Harbor Township, had to take four different rail lines on a recent trip to New York.

Local rail travelers to Trenton or New York often start out on the Atlantic City line, switch to the Patco High-Speed line in Lindenwold, Camden County, switch to the River Line in Camden, then connect with other lines in Trenton.

"It took me approximately four hours," Marino said of his trip. "But eliminating a stop could save 45 minutes."

The Pennsauken transit center, slated to open in early 2013, will provide a direct connection between the Atlantic City and River lines, eliminating the need for an extra transfer. The NJ Transit board approved a $13.8 million second phase to finish building platforms, a canopy, stairs and parking on Derousse Avenue in Pennsauken.

The project has been funded with federal stimulus dollars.

NJ Transit spokeswoman Courtney Carroll said the agency expects 1,100 weekday trips on the two rail lines to originate from the new center.

Annual ridership on the 66-mile Atlantic City-to-Philadelphia line has ranged between 1 million and 1.3 million trips in recent years. The transit agency estimated in its 2008 report that the Pennsauken project would result in another 259,000 passengers on the Atlantic City service by 2015, with 840 new riders on a weekday.

Some of the bases for those estimates could be questioned. One factor used to generate them included an assumption that casino employment would increase to about 47,000 by 2015. The casino work force was nearly 34,000 last month, Casino Control Commission figures show.

However, the Revel casino project under construction is expected to create 5,000 jobs, and two small-scale casinos proposed in Atlantic City could add several thousand more.

A review by The Press of Atlantic City of the NJ Transit report shows that 100 of the projected new riders would be diverted from other stations that have access to the Atlantic City line. Still, 740 new riders would significantly boost usage.

Marino said more than 30 years of experience as a transportation statistician causes him to doubt the projections.

"I learned very quickly that all rail projections are not only on the high side, but on the phenomenally high side," he said. "But I think it's a very good program," he said of the Pennsauken project. "Uniting those lines is going to help people in both directions."

U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st, supported the project for economic reasons.

"By (creating) a new connection to Trenton, Atlantic City, Camden, Philadelphia and all the stops in between, we are providing our local economies with the boost needed to stimulate growth, create jobs and come out of this economic crisis stronger than ever," Andrews said.

Officials disagree on whether the project can boost tourism business in the resort. Visitors to Atlantic City generally do not take trains. Analysis of South Jersey Transportation Authority data shows only 1 percent of Atlantic City visitors come by train, about the same percentage as air travelers. Most drive cars or take a bus to the resort.

Marino said the new River Line connection could bring in shoppers, workers commuting to jobs or people visiting families and friends. Thompson said the increased rail access could allow area employers to draw workers from a larger pool.

She said increased ridership could result in more train stations being built, allowing current workers to move to towns along the line and spurring development.

Thompson also said rail service use can spike during major entertainment events, such as last month's Dave Matthews Band Caravan festival, and can be a great convenience for visitors.

SJTA spokeswoman Sharon Gordon said any additional transportation options for visitors will help the region and open up access to shopping, entertainment, historic sites and Atlantic City International Airport, which the SJTA runs.

Gordon said her agency has been working with NJ Transit to design a possible rail stop in Galloway Township to serve the airport, the William J. Hughes Technical Center, and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. She said the SJTA runs an airport shuttle from the Absecon rail stop and could easily expand it.

That stop is only in the planning stages and has not been formally proposed. But she agreed that increased rail ridership would make the idea more attractive.

Jeff Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, said any new option for visitors coming to the resort can't hurt.

"The new transportation hub will certainly make it easier for a large segment of southern New Jersey to reach Atlantic City," he said. "I really don't see a down side to it."

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