In a split vote, the Princeton Borough Council introduced an ordinance Tuesday night that could possibly preserve the existing Dinky right of way in the Borough.
A Princeton University official characterized the move as a “right of way to nowhere” but many audience members cheered when the vote was taken.
After spirited public comment for and against the plan, the council voted 3-2 to introduce the ordinance to establish a municipal right of way for future rail use on the official Borough map. Council members Jo Butler, Jenny Crumiller and Roger Martindell voted for the ordinance, while Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad and Councilman Kevin Wilkes voted against it. Councilwoman Heather Howard recused herself because she works for Princeton University.
The potential move would only preserve the right of way in the Borough. It would not preserve the right of way for the portion of the train tracks now in Princeton Township. In the end, it will be up to the Princeton Regional Planning Board to decide whether to approve the measure or not. The town would also have to pay the university fair market value for the land.
“Given all the ridicule directed at Sarah Palin for the bridge to nowhere, it is surprising that members of Borough Council are proposing a right of way to nowhere,” Princeton University Vice President Bob Durkee told the council.
Durkee said the right of way would end at the Borough border with the Township at a point where there will be no rail connection or rail service in the future after the university moves the Dinky station about 460 feet south of its existing location. Durkee, his anger and frustration visible, said the university was blindsided by the proposed ordinance.
“There has been no prior discussion, no attempt to cooperate or collaborate,” he said. “Clearly this is an attempt to overturn one of underpinnings of the memorandum of understanding.”
Some residents countered that the university has been unyielding and uncooperative regarding its position that the Dinky station must be moved. Resident Peter Marks characterized the university’s position as “brazen and insulting.”
Resident Joe McGeady said instead of worrying about alienating the university, residents should measure the school’s performance based on the school’s positive impact in the community. Residents and groups like Princeton Future are striving to make the community more environmentally sustainable, McGeady said. “The university is welcome to join us, but we aren’t waiting for them,” he said.
Princeton University Professor Alain Kornhuaser said the university could be a leader if it wanted to, and have both a great arts district and a wonderful transit system. “Thousands of architects would design an arts district that embraces the train service, and possibly embraces it going all the way to Nassau Street,” he said.
But resident Chip Crider questioned what the council is trying to achieve with the ordinance and whether it is legal. A proponent of a transit system called personal rapid transit, he said officials have a “one track mind” when thinking about mass transit only in terms of light rail.
“When the zoning was passed, you agreed with me that it was time to move on,” Crider said. “What happened? It is crazy as far as I can see. Your continued bickering is ruining our town and I resent you spending more money on legal fees for this.”
Resident Sandra Persichetti said the Dinky can be moved and people can walk the extra distance. “We’re talking 460 feet,” she said. “It’s not a big deal but we keep talking about it.”
Martindell said the purpose of the ordinance is to preserve the public trust. Though the Borough and Township negotiated a new right of way with the university along Alexander Street, he said preserving the existing right of way gives the town more options. He also expressed hopes that township officials or officials in the consolidated Princeton might agree and attempt to preserve the portion of the right of way in the Township as well.
“We don’t know what will happen over the next 65 years, what kind of technology will develop so that we could extend transit service to Nassau Street,” he said. “We don’t know the technology or the route. This will give us more options to explore.”
Durkee said the council’s actions would be a major setback for goals like improving the relationship between the council and the university and getting the consolidated Princeton off to a good start. Officials in the new Princeton would be put in the difficult position of having to decide whether to purchase the land or allow the right of way to lapse, he said.
“I thought we made real progress last year coming to an agreement, and an increased financial contribution,” Durkee said, adding that the town agreed to collaborate with the university on municipal planning. He said the ordinance would violate the terms of the memorandum of understanding regarding future transit. He also argued that future transit along Alexander would only increase train trip time by less than a minute each way.
Crumiller said a good relationship does not mean always saying yes to the university. “Sometimes we are going to disagree,” she said. You say every time we say no, we are ruining the relationship.”
Durkee said disagreement is not the issue. “This act will have a very negative impact on the university and no one had the courtesy to discuss it with is in advance,” he said. “If you think a few minutes at the microphone is sufficient, then it is going to be difficult to improve the relationship.”
Crumiller said the right of way does not interfere with the arts project. Durkee disagreed and said officials have not asked how the move would affect the university’s plans.
Wilkes said officials have worked hard over the last year and a half to make progress on future transit planning.
“I can’t support this introduction tonight because it will disassemble the progress made in negotiations,” he said. “We’ll never get anything done if don’t have the full cooperation of everyone. We could sit here and argue until we all die. It’s not really getting us anywhere. I support procedure worked out. I understand things are not ideal for us. I understand we all wish the train would stay where it is, but we didn’t prevail. We’ve worked out a strategy with the university moving forward…Even if we spend another minute on each train trip going around the arts center, it will still be an enormous gain.”
Trelstad chastised some audience members, saying their rhetoric “has risen to a level that has gone beyond civility.”
“I’m extremely disappointed in this community,” she said. “It disappoints me greatly…This ordinance puts our negotiations in jeopardy, and the right of way to nowhere does not connect to the township portion.”