PRINCETON BOROUGH – The Dinky shuttle is not and has not been facing any kind of threat of elimination, NJ Transit representatives told borough officials at a public meeting Wednesday night.
“We don’t approach transit needs on a revenue basis. If we did, we would not run any of the services were are running,” NJ Transit spokesman Tom Clark told officials when asked about the train’s potential fate.
“We have no plans to terminate Dinky service,” he said. “We are not here to tell you it is in jeopardy. We are going to operate the Dinky in the foreseeable future.”
In an unusual move, five officials from the state transit agency attended the borough council meeting and the governing body was offered the opportunity to ask questions about NJ Transit’s plans and its contract with Princeton University. The university bought the Dinky station from the agency in 1984.
Council members did not hesitate to pepper agency representatives with questions in the more than 2-hour exchange. About 50 residents attended the meeting.
NJ Transit officials said a little more than 1,000 passengers board the train daily, Monday through Friday. They did not provide weekend figures. They said overall ridership has been relatively flat over the last decade, so NJ Transit has put more resources in other train lines where ridership is growing.
Asked about the fiscal condition of the Dinky route, Clark said the shuttle currently brings in about $977,000 in operating revenue per year, but costs about $1.8 million annually to operate. NJ Transit must subsidize the difference of about $800,000.
But transit representatives said the Dinky performs well relative to other train lines in their system, with the average subsidy being more than 50 percent. “The Dinky is doing better than the system overall,” said spokesman John Leon. “And bringing those 1,100 people into the Northeast Corridor system is important for overall ridership as a feeder into the system. But flat ridership is not a good sign. If we do nothing, ridership could remain consistent or tail off.”
During public comment, borough resident Peter Marks questioned how the $1.8 million cost of running the Dinky is calculated.
“Does it include payroll, electricity, the cost of replacing equipment and repairing the tracks?” he said. “It is not a very useful figure.”
NJ transit officials expressed support for the university’s plan to move the station, and said the plan would mean more potential riders, an enhanced new station with more amenities for customers and connections with other transit systems such as bus rapid transit or a shuttle. Representatives acknowledged the train will lose some walkers, but that the university is willing to institute a shuttle that would take people to the station.
Asked by Councilwoman Jo Butler how many potential new riders the agency expects, Clark said “We don’t have a crystal ball.” The agency has not done any kind of study regarding potential ridership increases.
“I’m surprised at the lack of analysis and projections,” Butler said.
Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad questioned why NJ Transit supports moving the Dinky station if its mission is to promote mass transit and sustainable development.
“Why would you approve moving a mass transit station further from town, and making it something more people would have to drive to?” she asked. “Somehow I have the sense you are rolling over and playing dead like the favorite puppy dog. If your mission is to support mass transit, why not work with the community and university to encourage collaboration and find a better way to make this work?”
NJ Transit representatives said the contract with the university is binding, and gives the university the right to move the station. Clark said the state Attorney General’s office and senior management at NJ Transit reviewed the contract with the university, and it allows the university to move the station as it chooses, as long as it pays the costs, which are extremely high.
Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller pressed for the borough to receive a copy of the Attorney General’s legal opinion. Officials from New Jersey Transit said they did not have anything in writing, and they thought the advice was likely given verbally.
About 600 riders choose not to walk to the Dinky every day, NJ Transit officials said, and of the 400 who do walk, the agency feels the extra walk will have a minimal impact.”We believe the 460-foot move, which will add a two-minute to walk, is not going to do anything to hurt Dinky service,” Clark said.
Leon added that the issue is about balancing competing interests, and that the arts and transit neighborhood is good for the state. It would most likely bring new riders into the system, he said.
“Look, it will inconvenience a number of people, that’s not being argued,” he said. “But our planners looked in o the issue in depth and identified which people would be inconvenienced. It is a small percentage. But you have to look at the big picture.”
Crumiller questioned whether the 1984 contract gives the university the right to move the station as far away is it wants to. “Could they move it all the way to Route 1 if they wanted to and they owned the land?” she asked.
“They can move the station within the distance of the original station, which is the length of the platform,” Clark said. Asked for clarification on that statement, he said, “The move that they conduct has to come with the requirements needed for a 170-foot platform. The is a grey area there, but I don’t think they are looking to move the station terribly far.”
Councilman Roger Martindell said more parking, in the form of a garage, should be created near the station to encourage Dinky ridership. University Vice President Bob Durkee said about 36 spaces more than originally anticipated would be created. But university officials said the lot is underused now and questioned whether the demand for a new garage exists.
Borough Council President Kevin Wilkes asked what kind of public process will need to take place before the university moves the station. NJ transit does not need to conduct a hearing, do an environment impact study or notify the borough when the station move takes place, a spokesman said. Public funds are not being used, and the agency does not consider the move an abandonment of service or change in service, which would require lengthy advance notice.
“We don’t agree with statement that you are losing service,” Clark said. “The station is moving 460 feet.”
“You are leaving one municipality and moving to another,” Wilkes replied.
Asked by Wilkes whether there is a timeline for the move, Clark said no request has been made and no specific date has been set.
Wilkes also questioned why an at-grade crossing could not be added to facilitate keeping the Dinky where it is. NJ Transit opposes at-grade crossings, arguing they are too dangerous and lead to too many pedestrian fatalities.
Local officials requested several documents NJ Transit said it would attempt to provide, such as the Attorney General’s legal opinion, the previous deed to the station property before it was sold to the university, and other planning materials.