Princeton Citizen Group Asks State to Prevent Train Track Removal

A temporary station will be built about a quarter mile south of the existing Dinky station.
A temporary train station is slated to open Aug. 26, about a quarter mile south of the existing Dinky station.

A citizen group has filed an emergency application with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection asking the state to temporarily stay the approval it gave NJ Transit last year to move the Dinky station train tracks. An appeal is pending in court, but the appeal will not be heard until the fall.

The group Save the Dinky says the removal of train infrastructure and the shortening of the track could begin within days because of NJ Transit’s plan to open a temporary train station 1,200 fee south of the existing station on Aug. 26.

Save the Dinky’s emergency application argues that the project will “have an irreversible and catastrophic effect on the station by ending the station’s transportation function, removing its character defining elements, and destroying a railroad right-of-way dating back to 1865, through abandonment and conversion to non-rail use.”

The Princeton Station was built in 1918 and was placed on the state Register of Historic Places in March 1984 as part of a listing of “Operating Passenger Railroad Stations in New Jersey.” NJ Transit sold the station property to Princeton University in October 1984, but retained an easement to preserve the use of the property for public transportation. At public hearings last year, NJ Transit told the state Historic Sites Council that the sale contract obligated NJ Transit to move the terminus at the university’s request, and that its easement would then expire in five years. The Council granted NJ Transit’s request. Princeton University has planned for the relocation of the station as part of its $300 million arts neighborhood.

“Given the nature of the issues and the importance of the historic resource – an operating passenger railroad station that currently serves over 1,000 passengers daily – a stay is not only appropriate but in the public interest,” reads Save the Dinky’s application to the DEP for a stay. “A stay will preserve the  subject matter of the appeal and preserve confidence in the  neutrality of the administrative processes that have been established under law to protect New Jersey’s historic and environmental resources.”

Anita Garoniak, President of Save the Dinky, said the group wants to preserve the status quo so that there is still a station that can operate and a right-of-way to the station when the appeals court hears the case.

“If we cannot get a stay, we will have no station left to argue about by the time the courts rule,” she said. Garoniak said her group had to apply to the state for a stay before seeking a court injunction.

Save the Dinky is  pursuing three other legal actions to try to save the existing Princeton Station as an operating train station. In the fall of 2011, the group filed a suit in the NJ Chancery Division seeking a ruling that the 1984 contract did not give the University a right to move the terminus.  In June, the Chancery court denied a University attempt to dismiss the case, ruling that Save the Dinky and other plaintiffs have standing on the meaning of the contract. On August 8 the group,  along with  the NJ Association of Railroad Passengers,  appealed a June NJ Transit board decision authorizing its staff to transfer its public transportation easement for the station to the university. The appeal argues that state law required NJ Transit to hold a hearing before abandoning the station and easement.

Save the Dinky is also participating in a petition made by railroad passenger groups that calls on the federal Surface Transportation Board to rule that NJ Transit must get federal approval  before abandoning the station.

“I’m surprised that Princeton is seriously considering giving up an historic in-town operating station that is part of the national rail system.”  said Seattle attorney Charles Montange, who represents the group in the federal case. “The site was a known historic resource when Conrail acquired it in 1976. Conrail should never have transferred it without getting abandonment authority and explicit protection under federal historic preservation laws.”

NJ Transit and the DEP are both represented by attorneys in the state Attorney General’s office. Governor Chris Christie is an ex officio member of the  Board of Directors of Princeton University and has been a strong advocate of the University’s arts campus expansion plan, including the plan to move the train terminus.