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.