New Jersey Transit backs University's right to move Dinky
New Jersey Transit does not have the power to prevent the University from moving the Dinky terminus, representatives from New Jersey Transit said at a Borough Council meeting early last month after a yearlong community debate over the University's right to relocate the station. Officials said that NJ Transit also had no plans to end service to Princeton Junction.
The University has sought zoning changes from the Borough for several months in an effort to move ahead with construction on its proposed $300 million Arts and Transit Neighborhood along the Alexander corridor, but council and community members have objected to the provision of the plan that would require moving the terminus of the Dinky tracks south by 460 feet. NJ Transit agrees that the University has the right to move the station, Thomas Clark, Regional Manager of Government & Community Relations, said at the meeting.
“They’re very good points,” Clark said of the councilmembers’ concerns that the station would be further from the center of the Borough. “But there’s a legal binding contract that allows the University to move the station should they choose. They choose to move the station. We will work with the University in that move.”
Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad said she doubted that NJ Transit had no power to prevent the University from moving the terminus.
“I sort of have the sense that you’re rolling over and playing dead like the favorite puppy dog,” Trelstad said. “Yeah, they’ve got a legal document. But your core mission says, mass transit is the way to go … I don’t get it.”
“We feel that this will help the ridership. It’s certainly going to do nothing to hurt the ridership,” Clark said of the University’s proposed plan. “Of the 400 that do come [on foot], we feel that the loss of the additional space will be minimal, and that the new ridership will actually help the Dinky service.
In response to concerns that NJ Transit may cancel Dinky service due to financial losses and low ridership, Clark said, “We don’t approach our transit needs on a revenue basis. If we did, we wouldn’t do anything … We have no plans on terminating the Dinky service.”
The annual operating cost of the Dinky’s service to Princeton Station is $1.8 million, Clark explained. Dinky fares bring in an annual $977,000 in revenue, and the serves serves a little over 1,000 passengers every weekday. However, ridership has remained relatively flat since 2001 while other modes of transportation have seen tremendous growth.
NJ Transit Senior Director John Leon pointed out that the organization’s subsidy of the Dinky service was around 50 percent, while the subsidy on most of NJ Transit’s lines is less than 50 percent.
“The Dinky is doing better than the system overall. So on that basis alone, it’s not something is likely to be reduced with respect to everything else,” Leon said. However, he added, “Ridership has remained stable over the last 10 years. That’s not a good sign.”
“I’m just a little bit surprised by the lack of analysis in making this move, that there aren’t more numbers, more projections about ridership, more projections about how much money or revenue you think this will generate,” Councilwoman Jo Butler said. “I can also sit here and tell you, with a certain degree of certainty, that I think this could be the death of the Dinky.”
Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller made a motion to amend the University’s original ordinance to include a rail transit zone, where only rail transit uses would be allowed.
“I think it’s clear from the conversation tonight that we are not going to rely on New Jersey Transit to represent our citizens’ best interest,” Butler said. “And I think that having that right-of-way up to University Place is vitally important to the future of our community, and if they won’t preserve it I think we need to move to do that.” She noted, however, that establishing a rail transit zone “doesn’t even stop them from moving it.”
The council voted unanimously at the June meeting to send Crumiller’s proposal for the rail transit zone to Borough staff to be prepared for the council as a separate ordinance. The ordinances for the rail transit zone and for the Arts, Education and Transit zone that the University is seeking would go before the Planning Board at the same time, and the Planning Board could choose to merge them into one ordinance.
Martindell proposed changing the name of the proposal zone from “Arts, Education and Transit” to the more generic educational zone.
“I think it’s important to call something what it is and not what somebody would like to sell it as,” he said, saying that he thought the requested zoning served educational purposes rather than community transit purposes.
In response to questions about and earlier letter from NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein affirming the University’s right to move the station, Clark said it was written under the consultation of the attorney general, prompting Crumiller to request the attorney general’s written opinion on the legality of the move.
Borough resident Kip Cherry seconded Crumiller’s request. “This is very critical to their business,” she said. “It seems to me they should do a better job of evaluating the benefits to them.”
Cherry added that she doubted that Weinstein’s letter was written under the attorney general’s counsel.
Later during the meeting, Councilman Kevin Wilkes '83 requested that NJ Transit provide the council with a copy of a formula mentioned in the 1984 agreement that determines how parking spaces for the station may be reduced. Clark said he would ask if NJ Transit could provide the formula. Wilkes later asked him for a copy of the deed to the station from when NJ Transit originally acquired it, which an NJ Transit representative said he would provide.
Councilmembers also considered changing the zoning requirements to limit the kinds of retail activity permitted in the proposed zone.
“What about an adult store?” Martindell asked. “Do you have any concerns about what kinds of stores?”
“Whatever the tensions might be, we’ve been here for a couple hundred years and we don’t have any adult stores,” answered Rich Goldman, an attorney who represents the University on land use issues. “I think this idea that we’re going to take this ordinance and run wild and build stockyards and adult stores — I don’t think that going to happen.”
In response to questions from the council and the public about the provision for a pub in the zone, Goldman said “pub” functioned as “a catch-all phrase” for the dining establishments that could be created. “I think a pub is not the same thing as folks are thinking, which is a gin mill. I don’t think that’s what a pub is. I think a pub is a community kind of setting,” he explained.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Jo Butler. The article has since been updated.