The following letter was sent to the Chair of the New Jersey Transit Board, James Simpson, who lives in Princeton, as well as the board members, in anticipation of the NJ Transit hearing regarding Princeton University yesterday.
Dear Esteemed New Jersey Transit Board Chair and Members:
As a Princeton Council member, I urge the Board to defer its decision on Princeton University’s request to transfer and reduce the public transportation easement that currently protects access to the Princeton Branch Station. It would be improvident for the Board to act on this matter without a full public hearing and before related issues, now pending in litigation, are resolved. A last minute telephonic meeting would be a disservice to the public interest.
A Board approval would incur substantial detriment to commuters and will impose particular hardships on seniors and the disabled. It is being requested because it is desirable for a private institution to have its property free of railroad tracks and a station, presumably a situation common to most easements held by NJ Transit. The University has stated – as it is readily apparent – that its campus expansion does not necessitate moving the station. The public benefits from its development accrue regardless of a denial by the board.
The Board should be informed of the probable negative impact of an approval before making this decision. Members do not need to be told the economic and personal value of time. The requested relocation would add approximately four minutes a day to the Dinky commute, both for walkers in terms of distance and for drivers, as it adds three traffic intersections for the vast majority of drivers. (The current driving time for many in-town drivers, including myself, is less than five minutes, and for most walkers it is less than 20 minutes.) The proposed station changes elevation sharply and the plan includes a challenging set of stairs. The new station will be located away from the hustle and bustle of the public street, which may discourage female commuters at night because of the isolation.
Two additional minutes per trip comes out to about 15 additional hours a year for average daily commuters. For drivers who drop off commuters, the move would add eight minutes a day. It would contradict accepted land use policy encouraging transit-friendly development, as well as NJT’s own stated policy, to move the station farther from the population center. As NJT studies indicate, distance impacts ridership measurably, and its own analysis predicts a reduction in Dinky ridership based on the distance alone.
But in addition to the distance, the proposed station’s parking lot design bolloxes traffic such that most drivers will likely choose to bypass the station altogether and continue down Alexander Road to Princeton Junction – especially having already traversed three intersections in the direction toward Princeton Junction.
The current station is located along a wide, curved street which accommodates multiple cars on either side pulling out of traffic to drop off passengers. It includes an additional dedicated “kiss and ride” drop off location facilitating quick in-and-outs from town. I urge members to view the current station on the satellite view of google maps (search “princeton railroad station”) where you can see that it is optimized to minimize travel time for Princetonians (besides being welcoming, public and quaint in its historicity).
The proposed station by contrast compresses Dinky traffic into a small parking lot and combines it with new convenience store traffic. Its “kiss and ride” spaces are shared with shoppers. It places commuter parking a longer distance from the platform.
If Board members familiarize themselves with the plans for the University’s new campus area, it should become apparent that the existing station and tracks are compatible with the development with minor accommodation by the University. While the University has in the past given the impression that its campus expansion necessitated removing the Dinky, it now publicly admits that this is not so. A Board denial would neither preclude a beautiful arts campus nor would it deny the economic benefits to the community and the state.
The courts have recently ruled that the public has standing in regard to this matter. Given that there are several pending lawsuits regarding the Dinky, it’s likely that the University has prepared a Plan B anticipating either a denial by the Board or that it will lose one of its lawsuits.
Again, I urge the board to defer any decision on transfers of public property rights until litigation issues are resolved and then to consider the issues in a public hearing that will permit a rational and fully informed decision.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Ms. Crumiller is a member of the Princeton Council.