New Jersey Transit’s plan to shut down the Dinky for over three months was not well received at the October 8 Princeton Council meeting. For press coverage, see this Town Topics story titled “Plenty of Opposition to NJ Transit Plan for Dinky Hiatus.” New Jersey Assemblyman Roy Freiman and Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson, chair of the Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, spoke in opposition to the shutdown, and a number of Council members questioned the necessity for it, as did members of the public and representatives of Save the Dinky. Tom Clarke, public affairs representative for NJ Transit, said that buses would replace the Dinky for the three-month period, and that NJ Transit would provide a schedule and discount the fares by 10%.
Anita Garoniak read a letter addressed to NJ Transit Director Corbett citing the petition from riders protesting the shutdown and urging him to “listen to your riders and reverse the decision to suspend train service on the Princeton Branch.” The letter stated, “A plan that will inevitably discourage the use of Princeton’s long-standing mass transit link to the Junction is not in the best interests of Princeton or the State, and reflects a shortsighted allocation of public resources.”
As of October 31, 2018, over 750 persons had signed the change.org petition urging NJ Transit to reconsider.
In response to a mid-September NJ Transit announcement of plans to suspend Dinky service for at least three months, with replacement bus service, Save the Dinky Treasurer John Kilbride started a change.org petition urging NJ Transit to reconsider. See this PP story. Within days, almost 500 riders had signed. Initially, NJ Transit led public officials to believe the shutdown was necessary to install positive train control technology (PTC) on the Princeton Branch. However, as per this news story, the Dinky line has received an exemption from the PTC requirement–NJTransit is shutting down the line because it needs personnel and equipment to meet its federal deadline to install PTC on other parts of the system. See coverage in this PP news story,
At the Princeton Council meeting on September 24, Save the Dinky Treasurer John Kilbride questioned whether a three-month shutdown was necessary, see Town Topics. Kilbride told Council: “This community deserves an explanation. Many commuters in and out of Princeton who rely on the Dinky will be seriously inconvenienced.” Kilbride said a three-month hiatus could jeopardize the long-term viability of the line, and he urged local officials to ask New Jersey Transit to explain why the service is being eliminated for three months. Kilbride also said officials should ask for assurances that the three-month stoppage is not a prelude to eliminating Dinky service altogether.
Save the Dinky Treasurer Kip Cherry raised concerns about the impact on ridership: In 2012, 605,783 people used the Dinky train. After the station was relocated and buses were replaced by the Dinky again, ridership was 538,187 passengers in 2015. For 2017, ridership dropped to 481,867 passengers.
After a long wait for results, a three-judge panel in the New Jersey Appellate Division issued opinions on February 17, 2016 ruling in favor of New Jersey Transit in both of our appeals and upholding the lawfulness of the station relocation. A copy of the opinion in the contract case can be found here, and a copy of the opinion in the administrative case can be found here.
Save the Dinky President Anita Garoniak issued the following statement: We respect the legal process, but are obviously disappointed by today’s rulings. If the law permits NJ Transit to transfer important public transportation assets to a private developer without a hearing to show the transfer serves the best interests of NJ Transit’s riders, the law should be changed. Princeton has lost an historic in-town operating train station with pedestrian access from a public street. In return, we have a park and ride station farther from town and a resulting significant loss of ridership on the Dinky. It is unfortunate that the court has shown so little sensitivity to the vital public interests at stake in these cases. We fought this battle to give voice to those interests, and we are grateful to our supporters who have recognized that this was one of those battles worth fighting, win or lose.
Anita Garoniak, co-founder and President of Save the Dinky, received an award from the New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers for her efforts to save and strengthen Princeton Dinky train service. According to NJARP President Len Resto, “Anita Garoniak is a true advocate in every sense of the word. She saw an injustice and tried with all her heart and soul to right that wrong by founding Save the Dinky and organizing like-minded citizens of Princeton into a strong group to fight the entrenched bureaucracies of Princeton University and New Jersey Transit.” “Trying to preserve the beautiful Princeton Rail station, a landmarked piece of history,” he said “was a daunting task, as was trying to prevent the moving of the station facilities to an inconvenient location.” For more detail, see this story in Planet Princeton.
As is detailed by Planet Princeton in a 2015 article titled Princeton Dinky Ridership: A Double Digit decline, ridership on the Dinky declined significantly during the first two months of operation after the station terminus was relocated farther from Nassau Street. As compared with ridership from the University Place Station, ridership declined 15.3 percent during December 2014 – January 2015 when compared with the same period two years ago. Save the Dinky President told Planet Princeton: “It is obvious that people are finding the new station less convenient,” and said the ridership promotion plan agreed to in the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Princeton University and the town must be “formulated and immediately implemented.” For an earlier analysis of differing viewpoints on ridership decline, see this 2014 story from Planet Princeton.
The MOU made a number of promises about promotion of ridership, including a promises that municipal governing bodies and the University “to develop a formal plan to promote Dinky ridership, including but not limited to train ticket receipts being utilized to obtain discounts at McCarter Theater, University athletic events and local stores and restaurants.” According to the article, University administrators were working with a municipal transit committee to develop a plan and fulfill other promises in the MOU.
The fight to save the Dinky has always been about more than the station location. In two cases to be heard before NJ Appellate Division judges on October 19 in Mt. Holly we argue that NJ Transit is legally obligated to hold meaningful public hearings to show that transfer of valuable rail property to a private developer is in the best interests of NJ Transit riders. If we prevail, riders and taxpayers across the state will benefit.
One appeal (I/M/O Princeton Branch Railway Property Transfers to Princeton University, A-006009-12) challenges the last minute decision by NJ Transit’s Board in June 2013 to authorize a transfer of NJ Transit’s interest in the in-town Dinky station and surrounding land to Princeton University. We argue the decision was invalid because it Continue reading
In mid-September Save the Dinky President Anita Garoniak received the prestigious Arthur L Reuben (ART) Advocate for Rail Transit award from the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP). For news coverage, see Planet Princeton. The ART award is given annually to recognize outstanding advocacy for transit by rail. Anita received the award on September 19 after giving a talk at the NJ-ARP annual meeting. In a follow-up press release announcing the award, NJ-ARP stated:
If our 35 years of rail advocacy has taught us anything, it’s that
advocacy is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who lack patience
and determination. There are always hard-fought battles to be won,
and multitudes of reasons why ot to build something, or in Princeton’s
case, preserve something both of historic value and of necessity to the
community. We also learn that sometimes, despite the best of efforts,
what we seek to attain is not realized.
Anita said when she accepted the award: “Save the Dinky is not a one-person endeavor. It was and continues to be a team effort. Without support from our membership–through letters to the editor, appearances at meetings, financial contributions, and simple words of encouragement in chance meetings–the fight would not have been possible.”
Readers may wonder: “Isn’t the fight over? Hasn’t the station been moved and the new one put in place? The short answer is that the fight is not over. It continues because it was never a fight only about the station location. The fight is also about public accountabiity, the process due to rail transit riders before NJ Transit can lawfully agree to abandon an historic station, and the need to preserve a viable rail link to Princeton Junction. The issues of NJ Transit’s legal obligations are are at stage center in our two remaining court cases scheduled for argument October 19 at 10 a.m. in the historic courthouse in Mt. Holly.
On July 25, the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) issued its ruling responding to a petition filed on June 24, 2013 by the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) and the New Jersey Asssociation of Railroad Passengers (NJARP) arguing that NJTransit needed STB approval before abandoning the Dinky Station and shortening the line. Save the Dinky filed a separate comment joining the petition, as did Princeton resident and journalist Chris Hedges. Federal approval would have required a review for adverse impacts on the environment and on historic resources. However, the STB declined jurisdiction in an opinion stating that under the relevant federal statutes NJ Transit enjoys an exemption from federal oversight because it is a state agency operating mass transit commuter lines. The STB’s ruling, according to the opinion, applies to all of NJTransit’s commuter rail lines,not just to the Princeton Branch.
No decision has been made about an appeal. If the STB decision stands, it means that state law provides the only protection for the public against abandonments or partial abandonments of commuter rail lines that serve developers but disserve members of the public who rely on convenient mass transit.
In a presentation to the Transportation Research Forum in June, Henry Posner (Princeton alum and Chairman of the Railway Development Corporation) argued that unscrupulous politicians and developers may scrap well-functioning rail operations when the value of the land without rail outstrips its value for public transportation. Posner discusses three cases: Estonia, Guatemala, and New Jersey–specifically the case of the Dinky. For slides of the presentation see this link.
Over the past months, as the University has doggedly moved forward with its “arts and transit” construction, we have moved forward with our litigation, with mixed results that we summarize below
(1) 1984 Sales Contract Case. Filed in 2011, this case challenged the University’s claim that it had the unilateral legal right under its 1984 contract with NJ Transit to move the station stop. In 2013, Chancery Judge Paul Innes agreed with us that the contract did not give the University a unilateral right to move the terminus. He said that NJ Transit retained the ultimate authority to decide. However, he ruled that the contract “permitted” a second move of the terminus, and he cited a letter from NJ Transit’s Executive Director Jim Weinstein as evidence that NJ Transit had given permission. Save the Dinky has appealed, arguing that the move is unlawful without action by NJ Transit’s Board. The University has cross-appealed, arguing that Dinky riders have no “standing” to question its “private” agreement with NJ Transit. This case is still in the briefing stage.
(2) New Jersey Historic Sites case. Because the Dinky Station was listed as an historic “operating passenger railroad station” in 1984, NJ Transit needed approval from the Commissioner of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) before agreeing to the University’s request to move the terminus. In 2012, the DEP gave permission. NJ Transit told the DEP that it had a legal obligation under the 1984 cortract to agree to the project. In response to our appeal, the NJ Appellate Division upheld the ruling. We then filed a Petition for Certification seeking review by the NJ Supreme Court. See also our Reply to Opposition to Certification. We argued that the Court should take the case to clarify that the terms of the Register of Historic Places Act require a meaningful review and cannot rest on the alleged terms of private contracts negotiated without public participation. On July 9, the Court denied our request for review. The Court grants review in only about 10% of cases, and a denial of review does not mean that the Court agrees on the merits of the decision below. It does mean that the court found the case did not present the special reasons required for further review or that it presented complicating factors that would make a grant of review improvident. Whatever the reason, the result is disappointing since the record is clear that NJ Transit leveraged permission to encroach on the historic station by relying on a position about the 1984 contract that the Chancery Judge ultimate found was an incorrect position.
(3) NJ Transit Board Appeal. In June 2013, NJ Transit’s Board at a last-minute telephonic meeting voted to transfer the easements covering the Dinky property to the University in exchange for an easement of lesser value. The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) and Save the Dinky appealed We argue that the state Public Transportation Act requires NJ Transit to hold a public hearing before shortening an active passenger railroad line and abandoning a functioning terminal station. Other issues include the argument that Governor Christie, who has veto power over all NJ Transit Board decisions, should have recused himself because he is a University Trustee and has been an outspoken supporter of the project. This case is in the briefing stage.
(4) Surface Transportation Board (STB) Petition. The NJ Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) and the National ARP petitioned the federal STB in June 2013 to rule that abandoning the Dinky station and right of way requires federal approval since the Dinky operates interstate commerce. According to one NJ-ARP member, how could “a transit agency in the most congested state in the nation . . . agree to abandon an historic station that could be reached by foot from the center of town in order to build an access road to a parking garage”? Save the Dinky has filed a comment supporting the NJARP petition. It is still pending in Washington, D.C.
Now that the Station has been dismantled and the project is well underway, can these cases make a difference? Yes. In 2013, Save the Dinky sought an injunction to preserve the status quo and prevent damage to the station while the litigation was in the courts. The University opposed the injunction, arguing among other things that there would be no permanent damage because they would restore removed track and other NJ Transit facilities if NJ Transit had acted unlawfully.
What if the legal cases do not succeed? Save the Dinky’s mission is to preserve Princeton’s entire historic rail link to Princeton Junction, not simply the historic station. The plan to replace the Dinky with a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and to convert the rail right of way to a limited access road for buses still has powerful supporters, and the need for our vigilance and our advocacy will continue, win or lose this round.