The Memorandum of Understanding: Back to Bus Rapid Transit?

Press reports to the contrary, the revised Memorandum of Understanding is bad news for Princeton train commuters and for all who value Princeton’s historic rail link to the junction. It strikes a Faustian bargain that should be rejected. The worst news is that the MOU contains every known bell and whistle except for a train whistle. It makes no commitment to maintain the Dinky line as a rail line to the Junction. Instead, the MOU uses the phrase “transportation services along the NJ Princeton Branch.” Further, although the MOU doesn’t mention a “bus rapid transit” (BRT) system, the same BRT system that the public opposed last year is alive and well in the MOU. The route proposed for a study of “light rail” and “other transit options” — to begin at some undefined location near the Lot 7 garage or farther south– is the same double zig-zag route to Alexander Street to University Place to Nassau that was the route proposed last year for a BRT system. Even though it does not endorse conversion of the Dinky line to a BRT, the MOU does not obligate the University or elected officials to oppose such a conversion. All that is offered is the University’s promise not to move the Dinky further south than the Lot 7 garage so long as heavy rail is in operation.

This analysis may seem fanciful, since the MOU is replete with protests that moving the Dinky will enhance ridership as well as with earnest measures designed to mitigate the loss in ridership that everyone predicts will happen when the move is made. Further, light rail is the only the future transportation option that receives explicit mention. However, as is the case with all documents crafted with care, this one should be read with care and common sense for both what it does say and what it does not say.

The light rail possibility—which accepts as a given the abandonment of the current straight-shoot right-of-way on University– involves a route whose infrastructure costs could never justify its discernible benefits: Any task force that can add and subtract is likely to rule it out in short order. In the meantime, the proposal to install a BRT system on the Dinky line is on the books in camera-ready copy. Influential officials at New Jersey Transit continue to favor the plan to install dedicated BRT lanes on the Dinky right-of-way. Most recently, at the September meeting of the Central Jersey Transportation forum, planners promoted a Central Jersey BRT plan through a power-point presentation showing BRT lanes on the Dinky right-of-way to the Junction. The plan to relocate the Dinky to the south and to privatize its current right-of-way to University Place is, unfortunately, tailor made for a BRT. If rail transit cannot head straight to Nassau, why spend good money to install rail on a big dipper route to the already congested Alexander Street?

Significantly, at least three of our four elected officials who “negotiated” the MOU supported the BRT idea last year. Both of the Township representatives (Mayor Goerner and Councilman Miller) were fans of the idea. Borough Council President Wilkes was more than a fan: He actively promoted it. It is no surprise, then, that the MOU manages to be a very BRT-friendly agreement even though it accomplishes this without using the words “bus rapid transit.” However, given the overwhelming public opposition last year to a BRT substitute for the Dinky rail line, the MOU’s failure to refer to the BRT is understandable.

Nevertheless, one might wonder why our elected officials would fail to insist that the MOU include a firm commitment to a rail link to the Junction. Last year, it was more than clear that Princetonians did not want to lose the Dinky to a BRT. The short answer is that the University cracked a whip in a way that only a very wealthy and well-connected University knows how to do. Back in January, the University’s President made a self-described “rare” trip to Valley Road where she told a joint Borough/Township meeting that she could tolerate no further delay in receiving an answer to the request for approval of the arts education complex. She asked for an immediate yes or no, she said that she would treat “undecided” as “no,” and she proceeded to outline some “or else” consequences if “no” were the answer. There were four prongs to the “or else.”

First, since the plan to relocate the Dinky was the source of public resistance to the University’s development plans, the University wanted the public to know that it would move the Dinky south and away from Nassau Street whether or not it received the requested zoning. (The University claimed and still does, with NJ Transit’s support, that it received the right to do this in a 1984 agreement.) Second, if the University did not get its zoning approvals, the University said it would locate the Arts education complex somewhere else and build other less pleasant buildings on the Alexander site. Third, via a letter from Governor Christie, who now takes a keen interest in Princeton politics, the University said that if the arts project were not approved NJ Transit might withdraw its subsidy for the Dinky. (In later communications NJ Transit retreated from this threat.) Fourth, and probably most significantly, the University threatened to withhold its payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the Borough. That threat still holds, is worth over $1.5 million to the Borough, and is, on its own, a powerful inducement to Borough officials to stifle qualms and make nice to the University.

To their credit, our elected officials did not surrender on the spot. They pointed out that for procedural reasons no decision could be made that evening. As soon as the formal session ended, however, Mayor Goerner proposed that the parties begin a process of negotiation to seek a compromise. Thus was born the private process of “negotiation“ that has led to the latest iteration of the MOU. From the outset, however, the idea of negotiation and compromise has been strange. Why? The University insisted on its legal right to ask New Jersey transit to move the Dinky terminus and to privatize the University place right-of-way. Further, despite the fact that the University could build its arts complex without making the move, the University further insisted on the relocation so that it could build a new road from Alexander Street that would permit its employees easier access to its Lot 7 garage. Therefore, the University refused to compromise on or negotiate over the core elements of its development plan that had provoked public opposition. Essentially, the MOU negotiation was a process in which the community sat down to bargain against itself.

In light of this background, it is not surprising that the MOU is an agreement with benefits that are largely illusory and with burdens that are understated or entirely ignored. What is extremely troublesome is that the MOU actually appears not only (1) to accept the University’s right to move the Dinky and privatize a public transit right-of-way that Princeton has enjoyed for over a century but also (2) to endorse the efficacy and public policy wisdom of the move. Given the move, given development pressures, and given continuing pressure to incorporate the Dinky into a regional BRT system, it should have been predictable that in the future envisioned by the MOU, the BRT would emerge as the only future transit concept to stand a chance of acceptance. Even so, there was no good reason for our negotiators to have failed to insist on a commitment to the preservation of the Dinky line as a rail line. Princeton deserved better.