“It’s completely inconsistent with the master plan and inconsistent with reality,” said Township Committeeman Bernie Miller. “The right of way starts (in the Borough) at the Township line, but there is no companion right of way extending to the township. Essentially what we are creating was called in Monopoly the short line — a 600-foot right of way reserved for future rail uses. It serves no purpose.”
The planning board voted 6-3 to recommend that the preservation of the right of way for future transit is inconsistent with the master plan. The Borough Council will hold a public hearing and consider the ordinance for adoption May 22. Overriding the planning board’s recommendation and adopting the ordinance would require a yes vote by at least four of the six council members, an unlikely scenario.
“Even if we added it to the master plan, I don’t think we are in a position to say this particular right of way is what we want to acquire,” former Borough Mayor Marvin Reed said before voting against preserving the existing right of way. “It’s also inconsistent in the absence of a concurring ordinance from Princeton Township that would provide a complete right of way.”
Some board members questioned whether the move to establish the existing right of way on the municipal map is even possible given that Princeton University has already submitted plans for its $300 million arts and transit neighborhood. Those plans include moving the Dinky station about 460 feet further away from the center of town, a move many residents oppose.
Others questioned the potential cost to taxpayers and said preserving the right of way would conflict with an agreement detailed in a memorandum of understanding between the University and the two Princetons on future transit. The agreement preserves an alternate right of way along Alexander Road for future transit such as light rail.
“I don’t feel comfortable making a decision about which is the preferred alignment,” Board Member Peter Madison said. “I’m concerned that the decision on the right of way is going to put taxpayers in a position of having to pay for it sooner or later, and I don’t feel comfortable as a planning board member making a decision with a potential financial obligation.”
Borough Mayor Yina Moore criticized the board, arguing the planning board is not asserting its role to look forward to the future in terms of planning, which would include planning for the transit needs of the town.
Some residents argued the easement is in the public domain and that it should cost the taxpayers nothing if a new operator takes over the train line. When the University purchased the land, NJ Transit, a public entity, was granted an easement as part of the deal.
“One of the current issues is whether the contract gave the University the right to relocate the Dinky at points of its own choosing, as many times as it wanted to,” resident Virginia Kerr said, arguing that under the 1984 contract between the University and NJ Transit, the University was allowed to move the station only once. NJ Transit disagrees with that interpretation and says the school still has the right to move the station. A lawsuit has been filed on the issue by the group Save the Dinky and some residents.
Resident Kip Cherry and architect Michael Landau said the right of way should be preserved to keep options open for future transit planning. Landau said the light rail option to be studied under the memorandum of understanding is wasteful, environmentally problematic, and not cost-effective.
“If we are to be guided by sound fiscal, transit and environmental policy, we would all be much better off with a plan for the arts and transit campus that accommodates the Dinky in its current location and preserves a viable future light rail option,” Landau said.
Resident Peter Marks argued some residents would be willing to pay higher taxes to keep the Dinky.
“I’m not suggesting we steal land the University bought,” he said. “But the University should not steal the right of way that belongs to the public.”
University Vice President Bob Durkee said the key issue is who owns the land.
“We own all the land and we provided NJ Transit with an easement,” he said. “If the Planning Board or Borough Council want to preserve the right of way, they would have to purchase it.”