Suggests Borough Use Eminent Domain to Obtain Land from University
By Krystal Knapp
A Princeton University alumnus who heads a private railroad development corporation has proposed that the borough enter into a joint venture to create a local rail authority that would preserve the Dinky train station at its existing location.
The borough could take over the Dinky station property owned by Princeton University by compelling the school to sell it under eminent domain, said Henry Posner III, Princeton University class of 1977 and chairman of the Pittsburgh-based Railroad Development Corp.
The borough would enter into a public-private partnership with Posner’s company, forming the Princeton Community Rail Authority (PCRA).
Posner, who pitched his proposal to the borough council at a packed meeting last night, was greeted with applause and accolades from many residents who want to see the Dinky station remain at its current location or move closer to the center of town.
He said his company would cover all of the costs associated with creating the authority and taking over the land, including potential court costs and any payment to the university. The price to purchase the station would be determined by an independent appraiser, he said.
The university wants to move the Dinky about 460 feet south of its current location to make way for its proposed arts and transit neighborhood and to build an access road to its parking garage.
“I love Princeton University, but to me Princeton is the community, of which the university is a big part,” said Posner. “It would be wrong to effectively marginalize the Dinky and make it less useful to the traveling public because of inflexibility on how this arts complex comes together.”
Posner said other projects attempt to incorporate transit as a centerpiece of development instead of marginalizing it and moving it further format he town center. Even moving a station a short distance can hurt ridership, he said.
“This is a bad policy,” he said of the university’s proposal to move the station. “It is bad for the community…Having seen many complex railroad transactions over the years, this seemed to be something that cried out for a solution, and I didn’t see anybody else putting their hands with a solution, so that is why I did what I did.”
Posner cited the university’s employee shuttle bus as evidence that the commute to the Dinky should not be made longer.
“If the University, itself, for its own employees, thinks it’s such an unconscionable distance that they’ve got to run a bus, then imagine what it’s going to be like to take the Dinky then take a shuttle to a shuttle?” he said.
Councilman David Goldfarb, who contributed to the discussion last night despite previously recusing himself in Dinky related discussions because he works for the law firm representing the university, asked what makes the partnership with the borough attractive form a business standpoint.
“You mean other than doing the right thing?” Posner responded, adding that railroads are an emerging business that is becoming profitable.
His company would not make money once the partnership is created, until either the borough decides to sell its entire interest in the authority to his company, or the borough buys his company out of the partnership.
NJ Transit could continue to operate the Dinky line, but if it chooses to discontinue service, the PCRA could hire someone else to operate the train line that connects downtown Princeton to the Northeast Corridor at Princeton Junction.
The council did not vote on the proposal, but will continue to look at options as it weighs a proposed agreement with the university on transit and a considers rezoning the Alexander Street area near McCarter Theatre for the university’s proposed $300 million arts project. Council members and residents did ask Posner numerous questions at the meeting.
Councilman Roger Martindell questioned whether NJ Transit would cancel Dinky service if the borough takes over the station through eminent domain. Posner said he did not believe NJ Transit’s decision would be related to the identity of the owner of the station, and that NJ Transit has not been planning on canceling Dinky service.
“I’m not aware that the Dinky is on anybody’s hit list,” he said. “I’ve heard all this discussion about how it’s in danger and all that, but I have lots of friends in the industry. The industry’s not that big. My understanding is the Dinky is in the middle of the pack as far as their operations go, and, let’s face it, everything New Jersey Transit does loses money.”
“There’s nothing going on that I’ve heard of within NJ Transit that suggests that the Dinky is being held up as the poster child for hopelessly inefficient lines,” he said. “I know of no reason why New Jersey Transit would not want to continue service to Princeton just like they are right now.”
But Martindell pointed out that Governor Chris Christie and his appointees make up four of the seven directors of NJ Transit, and that the governor, an ex officio member of the University’s Board of Trustees, has expressed support for the University’s arts and transit project.
“If they were inclined to support the University over the interests of the users of the rail line, the users of the rail line could end up on the short end of the stick,” Martindell said.
Posner argued that purchasing the station would better insulate the Princeton community against a political move to shut down the Dinky. If the borough bought the land and the university still insisted on asking NJ Transit to relocate the track south, he said the move would be “a vindictive act of punishment.”
“I will not dismiss the possibility that there could be a top-down political move against the Dinky, but I would turn that logic around and say that’s precisely the reason there needs to be a Princeton Community Rail Authority,” Posner said.
Martindell expressed concerns about costs related to potential severance damages the university could claim if the loss of its property impedes their uses of it.
“If Princeton University wants to build an arts campus, for example, it might argue to a jury that it can’t build the arts campus that it seeks if there’s a railroad going though it,” Martindell said, expressing concerns that Princeton taxpayers could be left holding the bag if a lawsuit ensues.
But Posner said that PCRA would provide the funding for all such transaction costs through his company. “PCRA’s pockets are as deep as my pockets,” he said, though he acknowledged there was a possibility it could become a quagmire.
“If it is true that having a finger-shaped piece of railroad jutting into an arts complex destroys the value of the complex, then is it not also true that undue inflexibility in designing that complex is the true cause of the loss of value?” Posner said.
Asked by residents about the possibility of future light rail, Posner said it is one of many future options, but that he is more concerned with preserving the Dinky in the near future.
A former Conrail employee who was part of a Save the Dinky group back in the 1970s, Posner also questioned whether or not the university’s has the right to move the Dinky station under its 1984 sales agreement with NJ Transit.
“I’ve looked at it any number of times, and I certainly don’t read it the way it’s being read, and especially not New Jersey Transit’s self-serving interpretation,” he said.
Posner, whose father was also a Princeton alumnus, said he was planning on going to Haverford College to study biology until his dad ripped an article out of the Princeton Alumni Weekly about a new transportation program at the university. Then he knew was headed for Princeton He fell in love with railroads, and been involved with them ever since.
“That’s why we are here tonight,” he said of the path that led him to his future career path.
For more information about the Railroad Development Corp, visit rrdc.com.