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Op-Ed: Transit Agreement with Princeton U. a Bad Deal

By Jenny Crumiller

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the borough, township and Princeton University undervalues the loss of the straight shot right-of-way, parking lot and existing Dinky station.  It is a quid pro quo agreement settled behind closed doors and made under threat.  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.

By now, the pretense that it’s necessary for the university to move the Dinky in order to build its arts campus or that it needs to move the Dinky for various other reasons has been dispensed with and we all know that the objective is to get rid of the transit easement in order to give the university clear use of its land.  The safety issue was debunked by simple numbers and logic, “Move the Dinky to save the Dinky” was debunked by New Jersey Transit, and the reasoning that the university wanted to let its employees out at the other end of their parking garage was hopefully never taken seriously as a reason for moving an entire rail station and removing tracks.  President Tilghman stated it succinctly when she told us on Jan. 31 that she would not abide train tracks on the campus and gave us the go or no-go ultimatum.

You don’t have to be a real estate mogul to understand that getting rid of the easement for transit use that restricts the property would increase the value of the real estate, both in money terms and in terms of the university community’s enjoyment of the peaceful expanse of land that removing the train tracks would create. It explains the university’s willingness to hold its arts campus expansion hostage to the Dinky, even though the Dinky does not actually thwart any of the university’s stated objectives for the expansion.

So it’s hard to understand why we should trade the Dinky away so cheaply as this MOU.

If we go to the first page after the preamble listing benefits we would gain, we can dismiss much about preserving and enhancing the Dinky and increasing ridership.  That’s all based on the now-debunked assumption that the Dinky is in jeopardy since according to New Jersey Transit, the funding is secure and ridership is adequate.  Enhancements would be nice but they are only enhancements.  Similarly, there are  items in the MOU that are part of the project regardless of where the Dinky ends up. New passenger destinations, arts programming, et cetera is great, but the university plans to do those things no matter where the arts campus ends up.

As for shuttles that purport to mitigate the increased distance from the center of town- this is a red flag that MOU is a bad deal.  New Jersey Transit acknowledged that adding a shuttle to a trip loses riders.  Most people hate shuttles and avoid them like the plague, and when they do take them they wish they didn’t have to. This is because waiting for shuttles is especially unpleasant when you’re in a hurry.  Shuttles highlight the problem with moving the Dinky and detract, rather than add, to the MOU.

But the most egregious under-valuation in this MOU is giving away the existing straight shot right-of-way for a so-called floating right of way that leaves us with a zig zag big dipper path circumventing the arts buildings.  For those with visions of a light rail connection to Nassau Street some day, this is the most compelling reason not to support the MOU.

The Dinky as we know it is a convenient, fast rail connection to the Northeast Corridor. It works reasonably well in its present location, drawing enough riders to make it one of New Jersey’s better performing rail lines. We can get to it quickly from the center of town and we just pull over to drop off passengers and pull out again.  It is connected to Nassau Street by sidewalk. Unlike the proposed new station, there are no big stairways to climb down to get to it and it’s not behind a parking lot, surrounded by roadways we have to cross. We don’t have to do any studies or predictions about ridership – we know it works.

If we someday convert the Dinky to light rail along the existing track and extend it to Nassau Street, we preserve these important attributes without downgrading them. Thus, it is fairly certain that converting to light rail and extending it to Nassau Street would improve ridership, since there are no downgrades, and the extension might add new riders. This is not the case with a light rail that is slowed by curves, or an even slower BRT. Clearly such service would be inferior to the straight shot.

The current Dinky has proven ridership and funding. Expanding it to light rail best occurs on the existing right of way. The floating easement in the MOU is a cost to the Borough, not a benefit.

The only ostensible reason left to give up the Dinky – besides the lighted walkways —  is the $500,000 transportation trust fund.  But proponents of light rail or a BRT should not be tempted by a single payment in the present that sells out the future. That is one reason quid pro quo zoning is considered against the public interest.   We should not do it.

So, what about the 460 feet, which, by the way, includes a steep incline to go up and down?  It seems like it’s not much. It takes about two minutes to walk. But it would be a mistake to write it off as meaningless, just because of what it seems. It’s easy to ridicule the distance but much harder to ignore the science that predicts the effect of walking distance on ridership. I understand that a lot of people just don’t believe this, just like they don’t believe in global warming. Walkscore.com actually does a pretty good job of explaining distance decay function, if you’re  interested.

But even if you think the increased walking distance has no effect — realistically, what value would you put on the extra four minutes a day that Dinky commuters are being asked to give?  Is it nothing? Only someone who is not giving up four minutes of his or her own time a day would make that argument.

And one final point on the value of the Dinky may be particularly relevant. There has been much talk in the consolidation debate about “boroughness”, that intangible quality valued by borough residents that was given a name in community meetings. We’re already losing the Palmer Square post office.  We shouldn’t also lose another  one of the most important contributors to boroughness. Taking a ride on the Dinky is boroughness. It’s not like a strip mall. It’s along the street, it’s public, it’s old, simple, solid and it’s ours. We all hear the train whistle and love it. Moving the station is losing boroughness –  and if you think that is not of value you haven’t been listening to the consolidation debate. We value old things, we value character, we value walking and we value the Dinky Station.

None of the stuff in the MOU makes up for what we lose. It is not a good deal and I urge my colleagues to vote against it.

The MOU is a deal offering $100,000 down and $400,000 more on final approval. But the way the way the task force was sold to the public and to me after the failed January 31st ultimatum was as  the Alexander Corridor Arts and Transit Join Task Force. There is nothing anywhere in the Task Force resolution about negotiation. The task force was to study the actual benefits and impacts of the arts campus to the two towns and report their findings.

I myself believed that among other things, the task force was going to determine what actual material benefits the university was offering the local arts community and I was hoping to get these things writing. We had heard about these benefits in various presentations, but I felt it was my duty to get some type of guarantee for those benefits, especially when it came to performance space, one of the major benefits being touted.

Without a signed agreement, such enticements are not worth much to our residents.  But instead, this analysis was quickly dispensed with and the true goal of the meetings became: what will it take for the borough council to approve rezoning?  How much money and other things could the university give us in exchange for the loss of the Dinky?

So we are now being asked to approve the university’s rezoning request before the planning board review and before the public hearings on the ordinance. Much as the MOU strains to say it has nothing to do with the public hearings, the agreement is obviously to rezone in exchange for the benefits. This should be no secret, since if this were not the case, it would not be called an agreement. Instead of this MOU, we need to put the rezoning application back into the public realm where it belongs and let the voters weigh in on whether these benefits are worthwhile in the context of the rezoning ordinance, not here in isolation of it.  We need to give the planning board hearing on Thursday and the ordinance hearings a reason to happen.

So what do we do about the threat?  Can the university just move the Dinky anyway?

We all heard the repeated answers at the meeting with the NJ Transit representatives: “We believe the university has the right to move the station and tracks.” They were careful not to say that they themselves approved of the plan or that it was good public policy. But if the university has the right, why didn’t the university set about moving the station and tracks before this?  It would have made our lives easier in terms of this decision and surely the university knows that. There is actually no formal approval by New Jersey Transit and no legal opinion on it has been offered – only vague statements about what people understand and what people believe.  In the meantime, they have not had to overrule the local governing body in favor of a private institution. If we approve the MOU, they never will.

The next problem I would like the public to know about is Henry Posner, the real estate magnate and Princeton Alum who is offering partner with the Borough to impose eminent domain and buy the land under the Dinky. Here came a proposal for a public private partnership by an experience railroad expert with a plan for a way to save the Dinky and a generous offer to pay for it. We invited him to a public meeting, and after that, a colleague, acting as the liaison, asked Henry to write a letter requesting a meeting to discuss his plan, which he did. But we have never spoken to Henry or taken his proposal seriously.

Our colleagues have decided that they do not want to explore this option and we never invited this potential benefactor back.  Regardless of whether you suspect that this plan is untenable, or even think it’s crazy, it was an extreme disservice to Borough residents for us to turn away this extremely large gift without knowing all the facts or understanding the actual proposal.  Mr. Posner has told us that his proposal does not require New Jersey Transit’s cooperation and that he would pay all legal costs. Is this not at least worth talking about? Mr. Posner has formed successful public private partnerships with entire governments in other countries. We should speak with Mr. Posner about his plan in a work session where we can all ask questions and at the least assure ourselves we’re doing the right thing by rejecting his plan.

So what it comes down to is that this whole deal hinges on the university insisting it has the right to move the Dinky.  It can no longer pretend it’s for a higher purpose like art or that it’s the right thing to do for transit since obviously the straight shot right of way is best for transit.  No one is arguing that moving the Dinky is good policy. How can the university behave this way, with no ideals whatsoever, just because they can?

This agreement sends a signal to the planning board and to New Jersey Transit that we approve of moving the Dinky.  I can guarantee this is how it will be used.  We should not approve it. But barring that, we should at least wait until after the public hearings.  I ask my colleagues to postpone out of deference to the public.

Jenny Crumiller is a borough councilwoman. This op-ed is adapted from her remarks at the Oct. 5 borough council meeting where the council approve the transit agreement (referred to as the Memorandum of Understanding) with the university by a 3-2 vote.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

  • Important aspects to consider about extending the Dinky to Nassau: The train, or light rail which is light in name only, will encounter a steep incline. Will this require a bigger engine, and much more energy than is used on the current, relatively flat route? Will extending the route up to Nassau reduce the frequency of trips, and also dependability, given winter conditions and the steep incline and proximity to car traffic? Both of these are big factors in determining ridership. I have raised these issues before and have yet to see anyone offer answers.
    I love trains, but we must be careful about assuming that extension of rail to Nassau St is by definition the most sustainable approach.

  • As a Princeton alum, I strongly support preserving the Dinky line. Electric rail is the sustainable future of our country. Destroying such a low-carbon infrastructure just when it is needed the most is a deplorable concept. The Dinky adds to the history and cultural charm of the Princeton campus. Princeton should build around the existing Dinky line and make the Dinky more central to its campus. We should build support within the University to preserve this sound and sustainable transportation solution.

    Brian Von Herzen, Ph.D
    Princeton Class of 1980

  • tina clement

    To say I am disappointed with our ‘elected’ officials is an under statement. We elected you to be OUR voice not YOUR voice in issues. The weak knees shown by council at last nights Dinky meeting, and at: consolidation meetings, city planning meetings, revaluation meetings, etc is shocking! You should all look in the mirror and see the voters who had faith in you for years. Thank you Jo, (and Jenny for supporting Jo), in trying to amend the MOU. I believe Borough voters have expressed overwhelmingly to STOP PU from moving the Dinky. If council has not educated the voters to see why the Dinky should be moved then they certainly should have allowed more time to do just that.

  • Blake

    Unfortunately, the author answers her own question in the penultimate paragraph. “Because they can”. Reasonable arguments, and they are legion, are useless in unreasonable arenas.

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