Planet Princeton

Borough Approves Transit Agreement With Princeton U.

The borough council approved a controversial transit agreement with Princeton University and Princeton Township Tuesday night that supporters say will provide numerous enhancements to public transit in downtown Princeton.

“I wish the university hadn’t decided to move the Dinky,” said Councilman Roger Martindell. “It’s bad public policy, it’s bad for the community, it’s bad as a transportation issue, it’s bad as a climate issue, but the bottom line is, they say they are going to do it anyway. The question is, what do in response that is best for the community, and we came up with this proposal.”

Martindell, who served on a negotiating team that developed the agreement, said borough officials reviewed the issue of moving the train station extensively this summer, consulting a lawyer and reviewing the title history for the station property. The borough would only have a slim chance of winning a lawsuit to stop the university from moving the station, he said, and such a suit would be costly.

“It would not only be expensive,” Martindell said. “It would cast a pall over our relationship with the university that could last for a very long time.”

Others, including two council members and the group Save the Dinky, voiced opposition to the agreement and argued it gives a stamp of approval for the university’s plan to move the Dinky station 460 feet further away from town and for further expansion across Alexander Street.

“I almost have to laugh that you are worried about casting pall,” said Councilwoman Jo Butler. “The university has slandered us in the press, misled us at every turn regarding moving the Dinky, and we’re about casting a pall? I think not.”

Resident Joe Small said the new easement along Alexander Road for future transit such as light rail that is granted in the agreement “isn’t worth spit” and cautioned that Alexander could become a mess in the future.

“This agreement is nuts,” Small said. “It’s ass backwards.”

The council voted 3-2 to approved the revised agreement after lengthy debate and public comment. The original agreement was first presented in May and revisions were made in September. Martindell, Council President Kevin Wilkes, and Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad voted for the agreement. Butler and Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller voted against it.

Trelstad said she reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was in the best interest of the borough to approve the agreement after the borough explored all its options “on around and on all sides of the tracks.”

“I don’t want to fight expensive legal battles we have little or no chance of winning,” she said.

Crumiller argued that the Memorandum of Understanding undervalues the loss of the existing straight shot right-of-way, parking lot and existing Dinky station and is essentially a land grab for the university.

“It is a quid pro quo agreement settled behind closed doors and made under threat,” Crumiller said. “The university has clearly given us the hostile message that even if we don’t rezone, it will move the station anyway.  We might as well get something out of it.  That is what it has come down to. That is what we’re feeling enormous pressure from – threats.”

The council vote on the agreement came just a day after a group of citizens filed a lawsuit to try to stop the university from relocating the Dinky station, and two days before the planning board is scheduled to discuss the proposed zoning for the university’s $300 million arts and transit neighborhood.

“I have two new heroines tonight ,” said borough resident Anne Waldron Neumann, one of four residents named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who praised Crumiller and Butler.

“Mr. Martindell said the fight is best left for others to fight,” Neumann said. “We are going to fight for you.”

“Bless you,” Martindell said.

Several residents voiced their opposition to the agreement. Resident Eric Dutaud, a Princeton alumnus and daily Dinky commuter, said he has been ashamed of the university’s behavior over the last several months. “I’m even more ashamed if the borough council votes tonight in favor of the agreement,” Dutaud said. “You are voting basically in a banana republic, just bending and giving up in front of a threat.”

Resident Peter Wolanin, also a Princeton alumnus, apologized for the bad community spirit shown by the university and said after the university bullied the town, the agreement is only offering it a crumb.

“No agreement would be better than a bad agreement,” he said, suggesting that the council postpone a vote until after the planning board finishes its zoning review.

Speaker Rodney Fisk said a future light rail system along a new right of way on Alexander would not be able to make as many round trips per hour, would reduce ridership, and would have little or no chance of receiving federal funding.

“You are about to approve a memorandum of capitulation and I urge you to reject it,” he said.

“I think the town and university have to think beyond themselves,” added resident Jim Harford. “There is a greater world out there to connect to.”

One of the few people who spoke in favor of the agreement was Republican borough mayoral candidate Jill Jachera, who said the university has the right to move the Dinky and praised the borough, township and university for working together.

“Without the memorandum of understanding and the arts center, we gain nothing,” Jachera said, questioning whether council members who opposed the agreement were willing to take a gamble by not approving it.

Councilwoman Butler urged the council to postpone a vote and also suggested an amendment be added voicing the council’s opposition to the station move, but the majority did not agree on her suggestions. Martindell argued the council has already made its opposition to the move loud and clear.

University Vice President Bob Durkee countered several of the council and public comments, saying the university does not have expansion plans on the other side of Alexander and has no desire to get rid of the Dinky. “One of our goal is to preserve the Dinky”, Durkee said. “More than half the riders are university related.”

He also said the university has never threatened the town about holding back voluntary payments in lieu of taxes. “What President Tilghman said is the level of our contribution would of course depend on whether the town is able to work with us to meet our needs. I need to clarify, it was never our intention to dissolve the contribution from the university.”

The agreement passed by the council includes more funding from the university, a transit study and a traffic study, and an accelerated timeline for key elements to be implemented. It calls for a transit task force would be created that would study mass transit issues and future transit. A second study, which would start when the university files its arts center plans, would look at traffic issues in Princeton as a whole, with a focus on the central business district downtown and how new university projects like Merwick will affect traffic patterns. The school is also doubling the amount of money it would contribute to a mass transit study trust fund, and would provide an additional $450,000 for three illuminated pedestrian crosswalks on Nassau Street, and the agreement extends the period for a new right of way along Alexander from 50 years to 65 years.

Council President Kevin Wilkes said the agreement is important because it achieves a commitment from the university, the borough and the township to work together to plan for the town’s future. He said the borough has been discussing the issue since 2008 and should not keep dragging things out.

“It’s been suggested that we are giving up a straight shot to Nassau,” Wilkes said. “But we don’t have a straight shot on the books right now…I’m voting yes with the hope that we will all work together to improve transit and increase ridership.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier edition of this story incorrectly stated that a second study, to begin after the zoning is approved, would look at traffic issues in Princeton as a whole. The study will start after the university submits its plans for the proposed arts center.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Jo Butler

    Correction: I was not the person who poked fun at the provision that says there will be facilities in Princeton that cannot be found in NYC or Philly; Anne Neumann did.
    However, I did recommend that we take time to review the document carefully to ensure that this agreement will stand the test of time and prove to be of value to future Princetonians. There has been such incredible misunderstanding around the 1984 agreement that included a provision for the University to move the train, a move that, in my mind, has been executed, that I feel strongly that we owe it to future University officials and Boro administrators to be as clear as possible regarding the intent of this agreement. That is what I hoped to accomplish with my admendment. The bulk of the MOU was conceived and written roughly six months ago, and already it does not stand the test of time. You may recall that earlier in the year, the University’s position was that we had to move the Dinky to save the Dinky, so much of the first-draft MOU focused on ways in which we could increase ridership — our effort to save the Dinky. What the University knew — and the Council came to understand this summer when we invited representatives of NJ Transit to meet with us — is that the Dinky is not, and was not, on any sort of list to be cut. My suggestion was to get that fluff out of the agreement. It confuses the issue. If we want to increase ridership, we should zone the area around the current terminus for a transit village, similiar to what is being contemplated at the Junction — housing, retail, etc. Short of that, it isn’t our job, and we lack the time, the expertise and the resources to take on marketing for NJT. In my mind, a connection to NYC is probably a very attractive feature for prospective Princeton University students and faculty. Let the University take on the marketing if they wish, but let’s not confuse the critical issue for our citizens. And let’s not let this agreement become a marketing tool for the University. If they decide that they absolutely must overide the public will and move the Dinky — and this right is upheld in a court of law — then they surely bear responsibility for a decent station, one that includes bells, whistles, lights, signs, etc. We need not negotiate that. It is not a gift to us. The details of the station are the pervue of NJT, and my guess is that our silly agreement about those details can be overridden by NJT. I trust the University to do a decent job. We need not negotiate that.
    I understand the sentiment that we must take anything we can get because the University can do whatever they want anyway. When the University publicly threatened to withhold their PILOT payment if they did not get the zoning they wanted, I asked the question: How are we to govern under these circumstances? That question hasn’t gone away, and I am sorry that my colleagues chose to consider the MOU so narrowly. Many of the citizens who spoke out against the MOU at the Council meeting cited the University’s plans for expansion both down and across Alexander. This isn’t the last discussion regarding zoning that will take place between the University and Boro Council. Rather than succumb to the temptation to look at this agreement in isolation, I regret that Jenny Crumiller were not able to convince our colleagues to think more broadly, more long term. With this MOU, we rewarded bad behavior. Expect to see more of it.

  • Peter Marks

    The “MOU” decision was far too important to approve on a narrow 3 to 2 vote. Whatever the merits of the case, the vehement opposition of two council members and scores of residents were more than adequate grounds for any reasonable person to favor postponing the vote — if only until after the November 8 election when voters would have had a clear choice between the sharply opposing viewpoints of Barbara Trelstad (who provided the winning margin) and myself (a reliable “no” vote).

    Those who voted in favor of the MOU demonstrated a haughty disregard of the views of the residents to whom they owe their seats. They also demonstrated a lack of backbone, a lack of imagination, a lack of understanding, a lack of negotiating ability, and a lack of courage.

    The University’s current administration is setting new standards for arrogance and mendacity. Borough Council, in turn, has just set a new standard for grovelling and appeasement. Is there no outrage we will not justify in the name of cordial “town gown” relations?

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