Op-Ed: M.O.U.—P.U.

By Anne Neumann

The Dinky. The Dinky. What to do about the Dinky?

Well, till pigs fly, or someone pays for light rail to Nassau Street, we could leave the Dinky terminus exactly where it is.

Who wouldn’t favor such an obvious solution? Princeton University! It has floated several reasons:

1. The University wants to lower employees’ carbon emissions by letting them enter West Garage directly from Alexander Street. It says New Jersey Transit doesn’t permit grade crossings (like those at Faculty Road or Princeton Junction) so the Dinky must stop 460 feet and two flights of stairs farther downhill from Nassau Street to make room for a driveway.

2. The University needs new arts classrooms—sorry, an Arts Neighborhood—no, an Arts and Transit Neighborhood—wait, an Arts, Transit, and Education Neighborhood. Because of synergy, it must put those buildings between the Dinky tracks and Alexander.

3. Easy access to West Garage, also at least 460 feet from the current WaWa lot, will make McCarter Theater parking more convenient.

4. University President Shirley Tilghman doesn’t want trains running through her campus. The land between Alexander Street and the Dinky is mostly University-owned, but it’s currently office buildings, not campus. So Borough Council must grant the zoning change the University needs for a $300-million arts complex. Then that land will be campus.

5. Otherwise, President Tilghman says she will put the arts complex somewhere else on campus. Which is a pity because the $300 million won’t help create badly-needed construction jobs on Alexander Street.

6. If Borough Council doesn’t rezone, the University will rethink its million-dollar annual charitable donation to the Borough. It will move the Dinky anyway. And, with no arts campus attracting more riders, the University predicts NJ Transit will probably eliminate Dinky service.

You choose which reason sounds like the real one. I don’t care because I disbelieve them all.

Take point 1, carbon emissions. Moving the Dinky would add two new traffic lights to the three already on Alexander Street. Imagine cars idling at all those lights—or  crawling between them at rush-hour.

Point 4, President Tilghman doesn’t want train tracks through her campus? I don’t want my Dinky station inside campus. Public transport means public access. If the University doesn’t like Forbes College students with late-night munchies crossing Alexander for the WaWa, why not turn Forbes into more office space with its own parking garage and put Forbes College wherever those on-campus offices are now?

Why ever the University insists on moving the Dinky, that insistence explains the Memo of Understanding (or MOU) two University spokespersons recently negotiated with two Borough Council and two Township Committee members. Though Arts complex plans show no buildings actually on the Dinky tracks, those negotiations began by assuming the Dinky must move. The resulting MOU, as yet unsigned, exemplifies the University’s contempt.

First, why was Township Committee involved in negotiations? Fewer Township residents walk to the Dinky, and the Township will gain ratables if the Dinky moves. Township Committee has already accepted a shortened Dinky, so the ratio of pro-move to anti-move negotiators was four to two.

Next, why does the MOU contain so many empty promises? “6.3.1  It is anticipated that expansion of the University’s arts programming will result in more artists, students and audience members traveling between Princeton and New York. It is further expected that there will be performers, performances and facilities in Princeton that will not be available in New York.” Who “anticipates,” who “expects,” and suppose they’re wrong? Oops! Why will more students travel between Princeton and New York because the University beefs up its arts program here?  Some performers, performances, and facilities will be unavailable in New York? Could that mean student performers and performances? And aren’t all facilities in Princeton unavailable in New York because—duh—they’re not in New York (like practice rooms for Princeton students only)?

Another irritant:  if the arts district is approved, then, according to the MOU, the University promises (8.1) a “heated/cooled waiting room,” (8.2) “restrooms,” (8.3) “ticket machines,” etc. We already have ticket machines, and—if the University hadn’t broken a 1984 promise and closed the old Dinky station—we’d still have a waiting room and restrooms.

The MOU, finally, envisions almost everyone but the University massively donating money and land. The University does promise $250,000 for “studies, planning and implementation of improvements to transit needs.”  That’s bad pennies compared to the University’s $14.4-billion 2010 endowment.  It’s wooden nickels compared to the total cost—perhaps $36 million according to one estimate—of implementing light rail to Nassau Street. Who’d pay the rest? Princeton taxpayers? New Jersey taxpayers? American taxpayers?

But wait! Our good-neighbor University will donate a right-of-way for light rail from the current Dinky tracks out to Alexander, probably through some existing parking lot. This dogleg is the so-called “Big-Dipper route” to Nassau Street, rather than the shorter, faster, cheaper “straight shot.” By letting the University move the Dinky, we’d cede 460 feet of crucial off-street right-of-way from the new station to the current one. Instead, we’d provide the right-of-way (and lose parking, and snarl traffic more) up the rest of Alexander and University Place.

The MOU? PU!

Anne Neumann is a borough resident and serves on the borough and township’s site plan review advisory board. She previously served on the Princeton Environmental Commission.

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