State Appellate Court Upholds Decision on Old Dinky Station

A temporary station will be built about a quarter mile south of the existing Dinky station.
The old Dinky Station.

A state Appellate Court has upheld the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s approval to move the train tracks at the old Dinky train station on University Place.

The removal of the tracks required the approval of the State Historic Sites Council, which is under the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The group Save the Dinky asked the DEP to stay the approval. When the state rejected the request, the group filed an appeal.

Save the Dinky argued that the project would 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 in 2012, 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 relocated the station as part of its $300 million arts neighborhood.

The Appellate Court said some of the issues regarding the train station move fall under the jurisdiction of the federal Surface Transportation Board, but that the Historic Sites Council’s Review of the application was consistent with the language and purpose of state law and regulations.

“The appellant’s claim that federal transportation review is required for NJ Transit’s proposed actions vis-à-vis their rail service is not necessarily incorrect, but rather misplaced in the context of this application,” the judges wrote. “The Surface Transportation Board reviews a proposed abandonment of a rail service to determine if an exemption is warranted.”

The judges said NJ Transit did not seek In its application before the state Historic Sites Council to be released from its obligation to retain or operate its railroad line.

“Rather, it sought to abandon the easement adjacent to the present Station and relocate it 460 feet to the southern facility,” the judges wrote. “We take no position on whether this action requires federal intervention. We note only that, as submitted to the Historic Sites Council, the plans presented by NJT demonstrate its intent to continue providing the Dinky service, but to a nearby terminal.”

So far the Surface Transportation Board has not claimed jurisdiction. If it does there would be a federal review, and that is a separate process. A national rail advocacy group has petitioned the Surface Transportation Board regarding the Dinky move and no decision has been rendered yet.

“We presume that if federal review by the STB is required for any phase of this Project, it will do so in accordance with its procedures and standards for review,” the judges wrote. “As to the matter at hand, we are satisfied by the record that NJ Transit appeared before the Historic Sites Council, and ultimately the DEP, solely to seek authorization to abandon the easement adjacent to the Station because such action would encroach upon, and change the nature of, that registered historic site. Thus, we reject appellants’ contention that the Surface Transportation Board regulations and procedures are exclusive, or in some way preclude DEP’s authority to act on this application. The record clearly demonstrates DEP did not exceed its authority, and acted appropriately while performing its statutory duty with respect to its review of the Project application. ”

Save the Dinky is considering asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the Appellate Court decision. The lawsuit is one of several pending suits regarding the Dinky station move and zoning for the transit portion of the university project. A judge ruled recently in a separate case that the 1984 contract between the university and NJ Transit was legal. That decision is being appealed by residents.