The February 16th Historic Sites Council hearing ended with the Council’s decision to table a resolution giving New Jersey Transit conditional approval for its application to remove 480 feet of track and prematurely abandon the public transporation easement to the site. Click link for draft resolution. The draft resolution was based on the materials presented by NJTransit in its Application. The Council listened closely to public comments and concerns and ultimately decided to table the issue until it had a clearer understanding of the facts and the legal issues. The next hearing is scheduled for April 19th, at 10 a.m., in the DEP hearing room, 401 East State Street, Trenton, NJ. For press coverage leading up to the hearing, see: Town Topics; Planet Princeton; US One; Princeton Patch. For post hearing coverage, see: Trenton Times; Princeton Packet; Daily Princetonian, Town Topics. For an op-ed on current and past adaptive reuse issues in Princeton, see this op-ed by Anne Neumann in the March 9 Packet.
This Application is unusual because NJ Transit seeks to dismantle a functioning historic site. After a relatively brief presentation, Thomas Clark, the NJ Transit representative, turned the mike over to Bob Durkee, Princeton University’s Vice President of Public Affairs. Mr. Durkee devoted most of his time to a slide presentation of historic buildings on the campus, beginning with Nassau Hall, to show that the University is a good steward of historic buildings. Both Mr. Durkee and Mr. Clark reiterated the claim that the 1984 sales agreement gives the University the right to relocate the station southward and away from the existing historic platform and buildings. Mr. Durkee seemed to say, in fact, that the 1984 contract gives the University an unlimited right to ask NJ Transit to move the terminus . He noted, however, that in the Memorandum of Understanding with Princeton’s governing bodies, (MOU) the University agreed not to make another move away from the town center so long as heavy rail service continues.
Borough Mayor Yina Moore, along with Council members Jenny Crumiller and Jo Butler, informed the panel that Borough Council opposed the plan to relocate the Dinky. Mayor Moore shared a resolution passed by Council on the issue, Borough Council Resolution, and explained that–apart from the loss to the community of a significant historic asset– the plan does not represent sound transit policy. Jack May and Phil Craig, both officers in the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, made statements opposing the move on the grounds that it would have negative effects on service and on the environment because of its predicted effects in increasing automobile traffic by decreasing pedestrian access. Click link for NJ-ARP website. Al Pap, speaking for Ross Capon, President/CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, NARP, urged the Council to deny the Application as well, noting that it seems “especially short-sighted” at a “time of increasing rail ridership nationwide.” StatementforNARP.
At least nine members of the Princeton community, many who are members of Save the Dinky, spoke to urge the Council to deny the request. A powerpoint presentation showing the history of the Dinky and tranportation issues raised by the application can be found at this link: Kornhauser presentation. Virginia Kerr, a member and attorney speaking on behalf of STDKY, urged the council to deny the application as premature and on the grounds that NJ Transit had failed to demonstrate a public benefit that would justify destroying this historic asset. Only one public commentor, a local advocate of Personal Rapid Transit systems, spoke in favor of the University plan to relocate the terminus.
The Princeton branch is one of those rare historic places that still serves its historic function. It enjoys a ridership of over 2,000 trips a day and has been described by NJTransit in an appearance before Borough Council as “doing better than the system overall.” The station complex was placed on the state register in the spring of 1984 and on the federal register in the fall of that year as part of a thematic nomination for operating passenger railroad stations in New Jersey. The state nomination documents note that the Princeton station is in “virtually original” condition and that the branch is significant, in part, because it is an “integral part of the townscape.” When the University bought the land in late 1984, it bought a Princeton historic resource with great utility and presumably did so to protect and preserve the resource.
Ironically, NJ Transit’s case for removing the tracks and prematurely abandoning the public transportation easement rests on the 1984 agreement. Save the Dinky and others have argued for months that the agreement gave the University the right to ask for only one southward move of the terminus–a move from the northern to the southern half of the existing platform. This move was made sometime in 1988 or after. When the University bought the property in 1984, the terminus was next to the passenger station at the north; now, as all can see, it is next to the freight station on the south. New Jersey Transit’s Application stated that the proposed arts complex development–which includes a proposed access road to the Lot 7 garage–was “permitted” and “anticipated” by the 1984 agreement. However, the Lot 7 garage was not built until the year 2000. See Lot 7 Garage story. The donation for the arts complex was first publicized in 2006. See Lewis donation.
Save the Dinky, along with several individuals, has a pending lawsuit seeking a judicial declaration that the 1984 contract does not permit another relocation of the terminus. The issues in this litigation bear directly on the issues before the Council.
Members of the Historic Sites Council asked Mr. Clark if NJ Transit would end passenger service to the Dinky station anyway, even if they do not receive permission to lift the historic easement. He said no. Passenger service will continue.
Moving the terminus is likely to decrease pedestrian use of the train. It could be the tipping point that finally ends the life of the Princeton branch as a train service and paves the way to replace it with a Bus Rapid Transit system. STPD continues to hope for a win-win solution in which the University modifies its design to preserve the Dinky terminus in its current location. See letter of Anita Garoniak of December 2011, posted on STPD website at this link. There is no discernable public necessity for turning a functioning historic train station into a museum piece. The loss cannot be mitigated by placing an interpretative display in a new station near a parking garage. The display will show not what we have lost through past neglect but a piece of living history that we have willingly given up.