Q: Did the University have to move the Dinky to build its arts campus?
A: The station and tracks did not impede the arts buildings in the initial design. In a later design, one of the buildings was placed on a portion of the railroad right-of-way, apparently in an effort to foreclose any future use of it for public transit. The University’s stated reason for moving the Dinky was to build an access road so its employees could reach a University parking garage from Alexander Road. The Dinky tracks were in the way. However, we believe the University could have accomplished this goal with a grade crossing or by building an underpass. The underpass and other alternatives were never explored because NJ Transit agreed to the move without holding public hearings on the transportation impacts and alternatives.
The move of the Dinky facilitated abandonment of the easement for public transit use that New Jersey Transit reserved fr transit use in perpetuity in 1984. This gave the University the ability to use the land for academic buildings.
Q: Why does a 460 foot move make a difference.
A. There are four reasons.
First, a move of 460 feet carries with it a loss of a public transit right of way to University Place and the most feasible potential route for an eventual light rail system to move up for a stop at Nassau Street. The 460 foot area represents invaluable and irreplaceable real estate that brings public transit into the boundary of the former Princeton Borough.
Second, 460 feet represents the distance of trackage being abandoned not the actual increased walking distance for pedestrian users of the train. Because of the slopes and the grade, the actual walk for able-bodied passengers will be over 700 feet; for disabled users the walk will be over 1100 feet. These distances may not sound like much, but the walk is downhill, and the increased minutes of time and increased effort will inevitably decrease pedestrian use of the Dinky.
Third, the figure 460 appears to understate the actual distance of trackage proposed for removal. On some GPS calculations, the move seems to involve a 500 foot move. At a minimum, the distance is probably 480.The University has been using 460 feet to make it sound less significant. But, whether we are talking about 460, 480, 700, or 1100, the distance isn’t trivial if we calculate the weekly additional walk times for regular commuters.
Fourth, discussions of the raw distance ignore the marginal effect of a move of the station. Studies show that the optimal location for transit stops is within a half mile radius. The move of the Dinky away from the population center has cost ridership, and we can only assume that regular commuters are now getting to the Junction by car. In either case, relocating a mass transit stop away from the town center was bad public policy because its inevitable effects were to increase automobile use.
Q: Is the Dinky in danger of being unfunded by NJ Transit if the plan isn’t approved?
A: Governor Christie initially threatened to withdraw the state subsidy for the Dinky if Princeton officials did not agree to the relocation plan. However, NJ Transit subsequently stated that the Dinky is one of its better performing lines in terms of revenue and has denied any plan to withdraw funding.
Q: Is the Save the Dinky group against the campus expansion?
A: Save the Dinky as an organization recognizes the University’s contribution to the community. However, we believe that University expansion and land use plans should take into account the needs of the entire community. We continue to be saddened that a major University has caused the destruction of an historic in-town train station in order to build academic buildings that could have been redesigned to accommodate the station.
Q: What about the new visitors and added tourism the development will bring to help support downtown? Could the plans actually hurt tourism?
A: New visitors and added tourism? Since the University’s arts complex is still under construction, the verdict is still out on this claim. However, we doubt that the expected bump in tourism because of the arts complex will actually materialize. The arts campus is for educational facilities, not professional theater, art galleries or museums. It is not Lincoln Center. Student performances and art, while often excellent, do not generally attract large numbers of tourists.
Balanced against this is a potential loss of tourism from the destruction of an historic in-town railroad station that provided an iconic and charming gateway to Princeton. The Princeton Station was listed on the New Jersey and federal Registers of Historic Places in 1984 as an historic New Jersey operating passenger station. Approval of land use plans that led to the destruction of this station was, in our view, one the worst public policy decision made by our elected officials in over a century.
Q: Won’t the “enhanced Dinky experience” of a new station and improved amenities increase Dinky ridership numbers?
A: The new station has been build, and ridership has decreased signficantly because of disruption from construction and the loss of easy pedestrian access to the station. Even when the project is complete, the promised station amenities are highly unlikely to outweigh the unconvenience of the new location on the periphery of Princeton. Also, many of our supporters report that the promised amenities have simply not appeared. The new station is not user-friendly to train users. There are no bike racks on the platform side, and the prime bike rack spots are reserved for expensive rent-a-bikes marketed to tourists. There are no push button openers on the station or WaWa doors to make it easy for handicapped passengers (or those with strollers or luggage) to open the doors. The interior of the WaWa has no windows on the train side or no signaling system so that passengers who are shopping will know when the train arrives.
Q: What about the University’s claim that it got the “right” to move the Dinky under a 1984 contract with New Jersey Transit?
A: We successfully challenged this claim. In our lawsuit seeking an interpretation of the 1984 contract, Judge Paul Innes of the NJ Superior Court Chancery Division, ruled that the contract did not give the University the “right” to move the Dinky stop. He ruled that NJ Transit retained the sole right under that contract to approve or disapprove the move. To our dismay, he ruled however that a letter from NJ Transit’s former Executive Director was sufficient evidence of NJ Transit’s approval. We have appealed these rulings because we believe that under state law NJ Transit was required to hold a public hearing before abandoning a high-performing in-town terminal rail station. The appeal is pending in the NJ Appellate Division.
The 1984 contract case has a number of ins and outs, but as background we note that when the University bought the land there was discussion about moving the terminus from the northern to the southern end of the historic Dinky platform. (That platform has since been dismantled). There is a provision int he contract that refers to a move in relationship to existing platform space. In 1988, the University in fact asked New Jersey Transit to shorten the tracks to relocate the terminus from the northern to the southern end of the platform where it is now. See University Proposes Renovations (Daily Princetonian, 1988). So, as we see it, the University in 1988 made the only move that was permitted by the contract. Any additional move – particularly one that involved the destruction of a station on the historic register — should have required a full-blown public hearing.
Q: Since the station is listed on the state and federal registers of historic places, how could NJ Transit and the University go forward with a plan that will dismantle the station?
A: In Februrary of 2012, NJ Transit asked the NJ Historic Sites Council for permission to “encroach” on the historic site by agreeing to prematurely terminate its easement and essentially relinquish public rights in the station. NJ Transit based its justification for this on the position that the 1984 agreement gave the University the right to make the move. It claimed that the easement would expire anyway and that prematurely terminating the easement would let the University get an early start on its development plans for the station. The Council was told that it could not review those development plans because, once the easement is terminated, the University as a private entity would not be subject to regulation.
The Council recommended approving the request , and the Ass’t Commissioner for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection adopted it and granted permission. We filed an appeal of this ruling, and we sought an injunction to prevent the move when it appeared that NJ Transit intended to move forward before the appeal was heard. The DEP and then the courts denied our request for an injunction. NJ Transit and the University claimed there would be no “irreparable harm” because the University had promised to pay to restore any of NJ Transit’s facilities that had been unlawfully removed. By the time our case was heard in the Appellate Division, the station platform and canopy had been destroyed and the tracks removed. The Court ruled against us, finding that the DEP had not abused its discretion in signing off on the plan to encroach on the historic station.
Question: What about the federal courts?
A: The NJ Association of Railroad Passengers filed a petition in 2013 with the Surface Transportation Board arguing that NJ Transit was required to obtain federal STB approval before shortening the Dinky line because the line operates in interstate commerce. Save the Dinky filed a comment/joinder to support this petition. Unfortunately, the STB eventually ruled that it did not have jurisdiction. It said that the Dinky line qualifies as a commuter line operated by a state transit agency and that all of these lines are exempted from federal oversight under federal law. The upshot is that NJ Transit only has to answer to the state courts when it decides to abandon or curtail railroad service on commuter lines.
Question: Are there any other legal actions pending?
A: Yes. Our appeal from Judge Innes’ decision in the 1984 contract case is pending in the NJ Appellate Division and will be heard on October 19. We also have a pending appeal (to be heard on the same day) from a decision by the NJ Transit Board of Directors to authorize the transfer/sale of the easements on the Dinky property to Princeton University. We argue that NJ Transit was required under state law to hold a meaningful public hearing before a full or partial abandonment of a functioning commuter line. We also argue that Governor Christie, who sits ex officio on Princeton University’s Board of Directors and has been an outspoken advocate for the plan to relocate the Dinky, should have recused himself. Governor Christie is the final decision-maker for actions by NJ Transit’s Board; through his appointment power, he also has effective control over the Board.
Question: What is the origin of the name “Save the Dinky?”
A: The name was the brainchild of the late Barbara Sigmund, who formed a “Save the Dinky” Committee in the early 1970’s when the financial crisis of the railroads threatened the potential elimination of the Princeton Branch. Sigmund was a strong advocate for public transportation and for the Dinky.
Sigmund played an active part in the design of the charming “kiss-and-ride” drop off at the historic Dinky Station. The drop-off reflected her vision of a station entrance that would respect Princeton’s history, would be convenient for commuters, and would complement the station’s architecture.