To non-rail commuters, the Dinky is that funny little train whose horn is audible throughout Princeton on quiet evenings, but for commuters, the Dinky represents one of the last no-traffic alternatives to effectively navigating the Northeast Corridor.
Cutting through University lands, the Dinky cruises high over the D&R Canal and Route 1 and right though West Windsor residential communities as it connects with multi-car trains at the Princeton Junction rail station. But that familiar "toot" of the Dinky (formally called the Princeton Shuttle), could one day be replaced by the horn of bus.
Well, not really a bus: more like a rubber-wheeled cross between a high tech bus and a light rail tram. The Bus Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis Study submitted to New Jersey Transit examined scenarios that could one day augment, or actually replace the Dinky as part of an effort to establish a comprehensive route devoted to buses and emergency vehicles.
The study, which was conducted in part by New Jersey Transit, as well as the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, and the state's Department of Transportation, builds on a series of public meetings held in the region, outreach work sessions and quarterly development updates at the Central Jersey Transportation Forum.
While the BRT study addresses potential routes that would run between Lawrence and South Brunswick, stopping at malls and office parks along the way, the Princeton impact could directly affect the Dinky, from a "fix-it-up, but don't do anything else" concept to a "replace-it-completely with two dedicated BRT roadways," said Marvin Reed, a former Borough Mayor and current member of the Regional Planning Board, who will host a seminar on the Dinky study on November 27 at 8 p.m. at Borough Hall.
The study indicates that an increase in rail or bus service to Princeton Junction could more effectively coordinate with in-coming trains at the Princeton Junction station. It would, according to the study, also provide increased access to points along Route 1, thereby leading to a decrease in automobile traffic.
But some worry that changing the Dinky altogether will ultimately deter riders from approaching the shuttle, conversely increasing traffic, and take away from the perceived accessibility of the Junction. Further, Princeton University has indicated that it will work with New Jersey Transit in the redevelopment of the entire University Place/Alexander Street neighborhood, which would relocate the Dinky Station further south.
According to Andrew Koontz, a member of Princeton Borough Council, and a daily rail commuter: "People aren't going to ride it if it's drastically different than it is."
At least for now, Mr. Reed is not worried. He said that a likely scenario would be a "hybrid" that would retain the Dinky tracks with a BRT roadway running side-by-side. That is, "if New Jersey Transit does anything at all," he wrote in an e-mail message.
New Jersey Transit has set no definitive timeline.
Study estimates indicate that a BRT system could add an average of 17,000 to 19,000 weekday trips to the transit system in the Route 1 corridor, with an estimated reduction of 11,000 to 12,000 automobile trips. The study goes on to indicate that the percentage of work trips using BRT-related transit would increase from a range of 2 to 4 percent to 5 to 9 percent in its core study area of West Windsor, Plainsboro, Princeton Township, and Princeton Borough.
It is likely that if any plan were to be implemented, it would be phased. The entire project, if built all at once, would fall in the $600 million to $700 million range.
At the end of the day, Mr. Reed said that any changes, if they are to be embraced by commuters, will have to be more efficient. "If there are going to be any changes, Princeton folks would insist on faster, more frequent service," he said, adding that a BRT could continue up University Place, and, "preferably," beyond Palmer Square.
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