Ruling in Contract Case: NJ Transit NOT Obligated to Agree to University’s Terminus Relocation Plan

On December 23, the Honorable Paul Innes issued an opinion  granting summary judgment for the University.  Innes Opinion This looked like a win for the University on the meaning of the 1984 contract, but the opinion tells a different story.  See Chancery Opinion Press Release.

For years, NJ Transit and the University have claimed that the 84 contract gave the University the right to compel NJ Transit to move the Dinky terminus southward to facilitate automobile access to a campus parking garage. See Minutes June 211 Borough Council Meeting.   Judge Innes did not endorse this claim. Although he did not accept SDKY’s position that the contract does not allow a second terminus move, he said NJ Transit had the “sole power” to make decisions about the terminus location.”Princeton University is permitted to propose” a relocation, he said, but he also said NJ Transit could object and “its denial of the plans would prevent any alteration to the services within the station property.”

Judge Innes also said that because planned new station next to the campus garage is still on the station property, the public transportation easement covering the property remains in “full force.”  However, Judge Innes had earlier ruled that Save the Dinky and the individual plaintiffs did not have standing to enforce the public transportation easement.  Save the Dinky will be making a decision whether to appeal over the next weeks.  For news coverage of the opinion, see Town Topics; Planet Princeton; Trentonian.   For recent background coverage of the controversy, see Bloomberg News; Providence Journal; Chicago Tribune.

Our other  state court challenges are still pending.  One–the challenge to the decision by the NJ DEP approving New Jersey Transit’s request to prematurely public rights in the historic station property–will be argued on January 8.  NJ Transit based its request on alleged contract obligations that, according to the Innes opinion, it did not have.

The other, in which SDKY is joined by the NJ Association of Railroad Passengers,  challenges the resolution passed by NJ Transit’s Board at a last minute meeting on June 25 to authorize its staff to exchange the easement on the station property for an easement over University land farther away. See Star Ledger on NJT Board Appeal.  We believe that NJ Transit violated its statutory obligations to hold a full public hearing and that Governor Christie should have recused himself because he is an ex officio member of Princeton University’s Board of Trustees.   The Governor is reported to be  “actively involved”  as a trustee and has been an outspoken advocate for the University’s Arts & Transit plan.   Prior to a joint Borough/Township meeting on January 31, 2011, the Governor  wrote that the University’s plan represents “the best plan for the Princeton rail shuttle, both now and in the future.”  See  Jan. 31, 2011 Letter.

As recently reported by  the Princeton Packet, NJ Transit’s ridership on the Dinky branch declined 13% for the quarter July 1-September 30, 2013.  (For another viewpoint on the data, see Planet Princeton.) This period only partially accounts for the impact of the abandonment on August 23 of the historic station location and the institution of temporary service 1200 feet to the south.   Last fall, SDKY unsuccessfully sought a stay to prevent the removal of the railroad infrastructure at the station.  In opposing it, the University said it would pay to restore NJ Transit  facilities if NJ Transit had acted unlawfully.  SDKY continues to believe the University can build its arts buildings without depriving the community of its mobility and  will continue to work  towards the goal of preserving the public transportation right of way and restoring service to our in-town station.

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