On Sunday, May 12, New Jersey Transit restored service on the Princeton Branch, just in time for Mother’s Day and comfortably in advance of Princeton University’s Reunion weekend which begins on May 30. The service suspension began last fall (on October 14), was initially explained as necessary to install positive train control (PTC) technology and was projected to last for three months. Public protests were swift and substantial: STDKY’s online Change.org petition eventually gathered almost 1000 signatures. However, the shutdown–with substitute bus service– continued well beyond the three months initially projected. Why? Personnel shortages on the Northeast corridor (reflecting years of mismanagement), not the need for PTC equipment, forced NJTransit to shutter the Dinky so that engineers could be assigned elsewhere. On February 19, responding to continuing pressure from the public and elected officials, NJ Transit announced that service would resume on May 24, in time for Memorial Day weekend. Just three weeks late Alexander Road was abruptly closed for eight days to allow for emergency bridge repairs, a closure that created traffic nightmares and delays for commuters relying on cars or buses to get to the Junction. For anyone inclined to take the continuation of the Princeton Branch for granted, the six month suspension sent a loud wake-up call. It brought home the reality that NJ Transit is running on empty in terms of personnel and funding and the further reality that the Princeton Branch is not a priority for the agency. For those who care about the future of the Dinky, it is time to think creatively about ways of preserving it.
A recent Echo article suggested it might be time to reconsider replacing the Dinky with a bus rapid transit system, a proposal the community resoundingly rejected in 2011. Others argue that the best way to preserve the Princeton Branch and to improve the service is to create a public-private partnership to take over its management from New Jersey Transit. A January letter from former Borough Mayor Yina Moore notes that there is investor interest in this approach, and a February letter to the Echo by SDKY Board member Rodney Fisk titled “Zombie Attacks Dinky: New Dinky to the Rescue” dismissed the BRT idea as a “Zombie proposal” and spelled out an argument for converting the line to light rail. At a recent Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association forum, Moore asked candidates running in the June 4 primary for Princeton Council whether they would support a public-private partnership plan to take over the operation of the Dinky, assuming appropriate financials. She asked for a Yes or No response. Two candidates said Yes without qualification (Pirone-Lambros, & Sachs), one said Yes but with light rail and intermediate stops (Quinn), and one (Bierman) said Yes with intermediate stops. This is plainly a conversation that needs to continue.
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 Secretary 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.
For news coverage, see these stories in Planet Princeton and NJ.com.
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.