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.