It's All Conceptual, but Talk of BRT Has Princeton Buzzing

Matthew Hersh

Flyers hanging ominously at New Jersey Transit's Princeton Branch warning of the impending fate of the Dinky if the state's Department of Transportation replaces it with non-rail system have caused some alarm among area commuters over the past two weeks.

Not so alarming is an alternatives analysis study submitted to New Jersey Transit envisioning a regional bus rapid transit system for a large portion of the greater Penns Neck area, since it appears to leave many doors open, and, at the end of the day, carries a price tag that is unlikely to be spent all at once.

That said, Princeton commuters, both residents who commute by rail out of Princeton and those who live out of Princeton and commute into town, filled Council chambers at Borough Hall Monday night, eager to hear the possibilities of a BRT system, and how a new system would effect the Princeton Shuttle, otherwise known as the Dinky.

The study, 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, developed out of a series of public meetings held in the region, outreach, work sessions, and quarterly development updates at the Central Jersey Transportation Forum. The analysis offers a look at potential scenarios that could eventually augment, or replace outright, the Dinky as part of an effort to establish a comprehensive route devoted to buses and emergency vehicles stretching from Trenton to South Brunswick. According to some Borough officials, Monday night's public session, which was hosted by New Jersey Transit senior director Jack Kanarek, came in response to calls protesting that planning for the entire Dinky corridor was occurring without the proper public input.

"A lot of commuters didn't know what was happening and it struck me that a lot of planning was going forward," said Andrew Koontz, a Borough Councilman and rail commuter, alluding to continued Princeton University planning for its envisioned "arts neighborhood" along Alexander Street, which could result in the University relocating the Dinky station 500 feet south of its current spot, and require continued BRT analysis.

Marvin Reed, a member of the Princeton Regional Planning Board, identified common gripes with the Princeton Shuttle, including its inability to run every 10 minutes, and commuters' complaints that it does not properly connect with westbound trains toward Trenton.

"If anything, we want to make sure that normal routines are even more efficient than they were," he said, adding that if the Dinky were to transform into a BRT system, it should link with a route that would bring commuters through Princeton.

Mr. Koontz, however, has worried that any significant alteration of the Dinky line could deter ridership, a point not lost on commuters in attendance, nor on Mr. Kanarek, who acknowledged the public perception of buses as traffic-ridden and potentially noisy.

BRT vehicles are likely to be more of a hybrid between modern buses and trams, Mr. Reed said, and while a BRT route would have to align itself with existing infrastructure and share the road with other automobiles, especially if it traveled deep into the Borough, points along undeveloped sections of Route 1 would allow for unimpeded, designated routes, Mr. Kanarek said.

But a system that traveled well into the Borough would require some additional thinking about a comprehensive jitney system, said Borough Councilwoman Wendy Benchley Tuesday, at a circulation subcommittee of the Planning Board. Mr. Kanarek, who presented largely the same PowerPoint presentation, fielded starkly different questions. There was less sentiment about the Dinky, while a more prominent issue concerned ongoing developmental projects in the region, namely, the Princeton University's campus design plan, an expansion of Quakerbridge Mall, and the relocation of the University Medical Center at Princeton and the Merwick Care Center to Plainsboro, which could conceivably be serviced by a BRT.

Additionally, the governor's Office of Economic Growth has been working with the not-for-profit New Jersey Future in an attempt to create the core Route 1 corridor as a launching pad for planning that promotes livable, accessible housing near commercial and office areas. BRT would be part of that general concept.

Ms. Benchley warned that if New Jersey Transit were to move forward with the BRT plan, DOT should start exploring land acquisition in the area to accommodate for future infrastructure.

"This plan makes great sense, but it's not going to happen if DOT waits to buy the land," she said.

There is no definitive timeline for the BRT project, and study indicates that any BRT plan would be phased. The entire project, if built all at once, would fall in the $600 million to $700 million range, the study reports.

The analysis also states that a full 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 say 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.

Mr. Kanarek indicated that there is funding to examine the Dinky line in the short term, and that the route between Princeton and West Windsor would be a logical starting point for any change.

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