By Kip Cherry
New Jersey Transit recently announced that its team studying four options for the future of the Princeton “Dinky” Branch had eliminated two options and retained two for further study. For those of us who believe the rail link to the Junction is a critical asset for Princeton, there are many reasons to worry.
The two options still on the table area are a no-build option that would maintain the existing Dinky service and an option that would combine light rail and bus-rapid-transit (BRT) service on a newly paved right-of-way with embedded tracks. The latter option, labeled Alternative 1 by NJ Transit, contemplates two new stations and a parallel pedestrian/bicycle pathway under a plan that imagines light rail and BRT operating on the same “road” but with alternating schedules that would extend BRT service into Princeton and West Windsor. The two options that were scrapped were a BRT-only alternative and another that called for light rail with a parallel dedicated BRT roadway.
What is the reason for worry? Surely Dinky supporters should be relieved that NJ Transit has ruled out the BRT-only option. Over a decade ago Dinky supporters successfully defeated a proposal to convert the Princeton Branch ROW to a paved BRT road. The problem is that it is not clear that BRT-only has been ruled out. To begin with, the combined light rail/BRT alternative would be prohibitively expensive. There are also reasons to question the feasibility of BRT cars being able to adhere to a reliable schedule while snaking through Princeton’s congested streets As for the two stations, the scope of work for the current study stated that Princeton University would only support two new stations if they were for bus transport only. It is all too easy to predict that, upon further study, cost and other factors would lead NJ Transit to conclude that – after all – the BRT only option is the most cost-effective. In fact, it is easy to imagine a conclusion that the most cost-effective solution would be plain old bus service to the Junction on a dedicated right of way.
What about the no-build option? It would obviously be less costly in the short-term. However, significantly, NJ Transit describes the no-build option as “no changes” and “maintain existing service.” Yet, this study was timed at the worst possible moment for evaluating Dinky service. Before the pandemic, ridership on the Dinky had already been hammered by the misguided decision to relocate the station, frequent shut-downs during the bridge reconstruction, and poor management. When the pandemic hit, Dinky service had not yet rebounded. Much of the appeal of the light rail/BRT option lies in the promise of better schedules and increased ridership. Yet even though the Dinky’s current ridership is at an all-time low, there is nothing in NJ Transit’s terse description of the “no-build” option that addresses the reasons for this or suggests any interest in exploring ways of enhancing service.
Ultimately, the feasibility of Alternative 1 seems doubtful. It is one thing to display software schematics showing a BRT moving seamlessly through Princeton’s streets and another to deal with the realities of those colonial-era, crowded streets. Then there are funding issues for a conversion that would most probably be costlier than under NJ Transit’s current projections. Where is the money for this? At the same time, equipment that could be used on the existing Dinky line will be freed up in other parts of the NJT system. Prudent re-use of equipment could keep the Dinky as currently configured rolling for many years to come. At the same time, at least one new entrepreneur has shown interest in running handsomely refurbished battery-operated cars on the Princeton Branch. And, we have the near-term potential for thousands of commuters coming into Mercer County to work at any number of new warehouses and fulfillment centers being built in Mercer County. Let us hope that Princeton University retreats from its apparent desire to scrap the Dinky in favor of bus service and instead devotes its considerable talent and resources to preserve and modernize Princeton’s rail link to the Junction.
Ms. Cherry is a member of the citizen group Save the Dinky.