Henry Posner III ’77, a private rail investor, has proposed that the Borough Council condemn the University’s ownership of the Dinky station using its power of eminent domain and has offered the Borough the financing needed for the purchase.
The University plans to move Princeton Station to create space for its proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood, a $300 million plan to build more facilities for the University’s arts programs in the Alexander corridor. Over the past few months, while the University has negotiated with the Borough over necessary zoning changes, public opposition to the neighborhood has centered on the University’s plan to move the terminus of the Dinky 460 feet south.
Seeing the move southward as an attack on the community’s infrastructure, Posner has proposed that the Borough take over ownership of the station as part of a private-public partnership to prevent the University from moving the terminus.
A few weeks ago, Posner privately sent documents to the Borough Council proposing that the Council invoke eminent domain to condemn the University’s ownership of the station. He has offered that, by forming a public-private partnership with the Borough, the Railroad Development Corporation — a private rail investment firm of which Posner is the chairman — would provide financing to purchase the station.
An eminent domain invocation would be based on the argument that public ownership of the station would serve the public interest better than would the University’s private ownership. Posner sees public ownership as preferable because of the University’s wish to move the station.
Under Posner’s proposal, RDC would provide the financing to purchase the station, and the Borough and RDC would share ownership of the station while the service would continue to be operated by NJ Transit. The Borough would have the option of selling its ownership to RDC.
The University’s claim that the proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood would increase Dinky ridership, Posner says, is “not a credible line of thinking.” He predicted that moving the Dinky terminus away from the center of town, where its riders are concentrated, would cause ridership to diminish.
Documents explaining Posner’s proposal indicate that the partnership would investigate the possibility of moving the Dinky terminus closer to Nassau Street.
“There’s nothing about the University’s plan that suggests it’s going to be either an improvement to rail transportation or that it will somehow assure the future of the Dinky,” Posner said. “When you move the station further away from the market, you lose ridership, no matter how you can sugarcoat it.” He added that he rejected the University’s claim that visitors attending performances at the new facilities would displace the commuters lost by the movement of the station.
University officials have said that one of the motivations of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood proposal was to generate more ridership for the Dinky by attracting visitors to Princeton. Over the past few years, some residents have feared that NJ Transit may choose to eliminate service to Princeton Station, and the community has debated the possibility of replacing the Dinky with other forms of public transit.
Posner said he didn’t see the idea that NJ Transit would incur losses by running the Dinky as grounds for its discontinuation, considering that most of its service is not profitable. “Comparing one money-losing line to another hardly suggests that Princeton is on somebody’s hit list,” he said.
“The whole suggestion that this [move southward] is being done to save the Dinky is Vietnam logic: ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it,’” Posner said of the Arts and Transit proposal. Posner has also claimed that, if NJ Transit ever discontinues service to Princeton, RDC would find an operator to continue service.
A representative from NJ Transit said that, out of NJ Transit’s 162 stations, the Dinky station ranked 43rd in serving the most passengers.
Posner said he also disputed the University’s claim that its 1984 purchase of the station gave it the legal right to move the Dinky at will.
Posner said that national transportation policy “has been precisely designed to protect our national rail infrastructure from these types of situations.” He added that the University’s proposal to shorten the Dinky to free up land for other uses was part of a national trend toward a “liquidation-driven strategy on the part of the owner.”
“Which is more important,” Posner asked, “that the University gets cheap land, or that the community’s infrastructure is not compromised? What I’ve done is to offer the Borough a proposal which would stabilize the existing infrastructure without costing them anything.”
University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 said that he did not expect the Borough to pursue a condemnation on eminent domain law. He declined to say whether the University would challenge a condemnation in court, but said, “I don’t think they would get very far challenging NJ Transit’s view” that the University’s ownership of the station is supportive of the public interest.
A disputed right to move
The University bought Princeton Station from NJ Transit in 1984, intending to move it roughly 100 feet to the south, to its current location.
The 1984 sales agreement required the University to provide and maintain a station platform of at least 170 feet. The agreement contains a provision allowing the University to “move the existing terminus of the rail line southward coincident with the location of the minimum reservation of platform space.”
The University has claimed that this agreement guarantees it the right to move the Dinky station again, assuming it provides a platform as specified. When Council members questioned the University’s right to move the station in March, Durkee obtained a letter from NJ Transit affirming the University’s right to move the Dinky.
“It is my understanding that such a move was specifically contemplated in the Oct. 30, 1984, agreement of sale between NJ Transit and the University for the station property,” explains the letter, signed by NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein. “The agreement speaks directly to the University’s right to move the terminus of the rail line southward so long as NJ Transit’s reservation of rights for a 170-foot platform is preserved.”
Posner said that the sales agreement gives the University the right to move the Dinky terminus only by the length of the preexisting platform.
“What they got in the ’80s was the right to move the stop from one end of the existing platform to the other,” Posner said. He said he believes that the University’s 1985 move of the station by 107 feet was within the terms of the agreement, but that the proposed move of 460 feet is not.
Posner said he sees a connection between the permission given in the letter, which he describes as “a highly favorable stretch in the University’s favor,” and the University’s relationship to NJ Transit. Weinstein, who signed the letter to Durkee, was appointed by Governor Chris Christie, who is on the University’s Board of Trustees and has expressed his public support for the Arts and Transit Neighborhood.
“I think that a dispassionate third party reading that agreement would see both the language and the intent was to keep the station in its existing footprint,” Posner said.
Durkee declined to say whom he had contacted at NJ Transit to request the letter.
“I’m not going to talk about who was on the other end of the line when I called and asked for the letter,” Durkee said. “I don’t think it matters who I asked for it. I think what matters is who sent it.”
Durkee cited a letter from Christie to the Borough and Township mayors dated Jan. 31, in which Christie wrote that the University’s Arts and Transit Neighborhood proposal “represents the best plan for the Princeton rail shuttle, both now and in the future.”
After speaking to The Daily Princetonian, Durkee added in an email that he believed the University would still have the right to move the station, even if the proposed private-public partnership acquired it.
“Even in the unlikely event that the Borough was successful in condemning and purchasing the land under the Dinky, it is not clear what difference that would make,” Durkee wrote.
The Council’s Consideration
The Borough Council has been considering Posner’s proposal in closed session for the past few weeks, Councilman Kevin Wilkes ’83 said. The Council sees it as a possibility that “might only be triggered in the direst of circumstances,” he explained.
“That’s a pretty radical step for the Borough to go in and condemn the land under the train station,” Wilkes said. “I do believe it is an option but it’s nothing we are actively considering at this point.”
“The man has a successful track record of running railroads, so I’d be foolish not to take his proposal serious at face value, and see what benefits it could offer Borough residents,” Wilkes said of Posner, adding that the proposal “really is, I think, in the realm of far-fetched.”
Councilwoman Jo Butler, who has recently been critical of the University in Council meetings, seconded Wilkes’ comments that condemnation was a distant possibility. While the Council had considered it as one of the “full scope of actions that are possible,” she said, “that has not been discussed in Borough Council in any serious fashion.”
“I just don’t think anybody would like to see it come to that,” Butler explained. “We’re trying to work out something that would be a win-win,” she said, adding that she still hopes to see the University’s Arts and Transit Neighborhood built in the Alexander corridor area in some form.