The stations will provide four-minute service to the Port Imperial Station in Weehawken, which opened in October. The Weehawken stop, in turn, connects with Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne. Ultimately, the 21-mile light rail system will terminate in Ridgefield, in Bergen County.
In Union City, the Bergenline Avenue Station will be accessible via elevators, 165 feet underground. There will be stairs and other provisions for emergencies.
In North Bergen, the Tonnelle Avenue Station will also provide a 738-space park-and-ride facility for commuters coming off the Route 1 & 9 corridor.
"This is a great [milestone] for new and current customers," said Dan Stessel, spokesman for NJ Transit.
Warning: Random checks for tickets
Like elsewhere in the system, passengers must buy their ticket at one machine on the platform and then validate it at another before hopping onto a train. The validation machine puts a time stamp on the ticket, allowing it to be used for the next 90 minutes.
Even though tickets are not always taken, inspectors perform random checks and dole out $100 fines to those without tickets.
"Our fare inspectors ride the trains and stay on the platforms," said Charles Ingoglia, director of public affairs for contractor Capital Projects. "These are random checks, and if they do not have a valid ticket, they will be issued a summons of $100."
Both stations will be under camera surveillance and have well-lit entrances 24 hours a day, and will have, at all times, a station attendant, a number of police officers, and a fare inspector.
Underground station carved out of old 1883 tunnel
The new extension of the light rail will travel through what was once the Weehawken Tunnel, which runs through the historic Palisades Ridge. It was once one of the busiest and largest rail terminals in the region for freight and passenger service.
First completed in 1883, the 4,014-foot tunnel was built by two companies: the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad (NYWS&B), and New York Ontario and Western Railway.
By the late 1950s the railroad had been abandoned for passenger service due to the arrival of alternate routes provided by the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel. Until 2001, when the site was rezoned for the light rail, the railroad and the tunnel were only being used by Conrail's River Line, which carried most of the rail freight to and from New York Harbor.
This history of the Weehawken Tunnel will be commemorated on plaques that will be placed at the new light rail stations in Union City and North Bergen, and the Port Imperial Station in Weehawken.
Widened to 60 feet
Ingoglia described the careful steps that were taken to carve the Bergenline Avenue Station out of the old tunnel, without disturbing the Palisades mountains around it. The station is 165 feet under ground and will have three elevators.
"It's an incredible and complex project that is nothing short of an engineering marvel," said Stessel.
Beginning in 2002, NJ Transit has worked with Capital Projects to update and secure the tunnel. Professional crews that had worked at Yellowstone National Park were brought in to scale back the rocks of the Palisades without damaging the characteristics.
"It was shaved back and reduced as a safety measure, but it retained its natural look," said Ingoglia. "The Palisades are a landmark; they were knocking off pieces that were protruding, which you know one day [are] going to fall."
After removing water from the tunnel, changes were made to the tunnel's interior, including expanding it to about 32 feet high and about 60 feet wide.
"Originally this was all bare rock, and the first time I walked through this tunnel, there was water up to our knees," said Ingoglia.
Artistic dinosaurs and astronauts
As customers step on to the 300-foot-long platform at the new Bergenline Avenue Station, they will be greeted by the friendly neighborhood tyrannosaurus Rex with its fiber optic claws, or astronauts hanging down from the ceiling.
As part of NJ Transit's Transit Art Program, New York-based artist Alison Sky was commissioned to design the theme of the Bergenline Avenue and Tonnelle Avenue stations. For Bergenline, Sky designed the "Weehawken Time Warp."
"My work is site-specific, and I was inspired by the rock formations of the Palisades," said Sky. "Dinosaurs were here at the time this tunnel was formed, and since time is a loop, the past, present and future very interwoven."
On the ends of each side of the 33-foot platform will be glass projection screens, which will silhouette Sky's shadowy figures of creatures and spacemen.
"Also projected on the walls of the tunnel will be the feeling of fire and water, which are the elements that created all of this," said Sky.
"It's remarkable to see all this come together," Stessel said. "We expect this to be one of the busiest stations in the system."
Future projects may include an extension of the light rail to the Meadowlands in Secaucus, and there is currently an environmental study being conducted on another proposed NJ Transit rail system that would run from Tenafly to North Bergen and provide connections to the light rail.
Additional information on the light rail or other NJ Transit operations can be found at www.njtransit.com.