June 26, 2013

NJ Transit Board Approves University Property Swap

At a special telephone meeting yesterday of New Jersey Transit’s board of directors, a resolution was approved to transfer property between Princeton University and the transportation agency in connection with the University’s arts and transit project.

The meeting came one day after a federal petition was filed by national and local advocacy groups to try and halt the relocation of the Dinky train station, which connects Princeton with the Princeton Junction train station on the Northeast Corridor line. The University wants to move the station 460 feet south as part of the development project.

The public could listen to the call by attending the meeting at NJ Transit’s headquarters in Newark. During a public comment period, five people from Princeton and two from the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers spoke against the move. But the deal was approved without deliberation, according to Princeton Council member Jenny Crumiller, who attended.

“I was really disappointed, especially hearing there were no comments [from the board],” she said. “I felt it was obviously already decided and the meeting was a total waste of time.”

Ms. Crumiller is among those in favor of keeping the Dinky rail station in its current location. The University’s move of the station would provide a second access road to its parking garage. Advocates for keeping the station as it is have proposed a way to enter the garage from University Place, but officials at the school have said that plan would not work.

Reached yesterday, Princeton University Vice-President and Secretary Bob Durkee said the session in Newark was held simply to come to a final agreement on price. “Today’s meeting is really about money, and agreeing to a price on the land that’s being sold, and figuring out how to determine the price on the replacement of the old easement with the new easement. That’s something that normally happens at the end of the process.”

According to an agenda released by NJ Transit, the agency will sell a 0.84-acre parcel, located in what was formerly Princeton Township, to the University. The land will be used to build parking for the new Dinky station. NJ Transit will purchase a .06-acre parcel, also in what was formerly the Township, to facilitate the realignment of the existing tracks.

The University will pay $185,000 to NJ Transit, the agenda states, along with an amount between $88,000 and $480,000 for the difference between the values of the easement interests, to be determined by a certified appraiser. The arrangement also moves NJ Transit’s easement area and reduces it in size.

Petitioning the STB

The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (ARP) and the National Association of Railroad Passengers filed their joint petition with the United States Surface Transportation Board (STB) on Monday. The object is to keep NJ Transit and Princeton University from “cutting back the Princeton Branch from its current in-town terminal,” according to a press release.

The petition asks the STB to declare its jurisdiction over the Dinky line, and requires that any reduction in its length be undertaken only with the agency’s approval. Phil Craig, a director of the New Jersey ARP, said more is involved than cutting back the track by 460 feet, “which is what the University has asked the public to believe,” the release reads. “The current station is approximately 1,300 feet from downtown Princeton; the new location would be 2,000 feet by foot from Nassau Street and a half-mile from Palmer Square, Princeton’s focal point.”

Moving the station, Mr. Craig continued, would be a detriment to passengers, especially senior citizens and the disabled. “The longer uphill walk will be especially difficult during inclement weather, when many passengers have to slog through snow, ice, or rain,” resulting in a loss of passengers.

Mr. Craig also said that the relocated station will be more isolated, creating difficulties for those who use the train at night. Mr. Durkee countered that the new station will be adjacent to the relocated Wawa market, which is open all night and staffed. “The Princeton Planning Board looked a lot at safety issues, lighting, and the design, and were fully satisfied that this was a very safe location,” he said. “There will be lots of evening pedestrian traffic because of the arts complex. There’s going to be life in this area.”

Jack May, vice president of the New Jersey ARP, said in the release that the University and the railroad “grew up together. There is no reason why the University cannot accomplish its goals while preserving the Princeton station in its current, accessible location. New Jersey Transit is the guardian of the interests of New Jersey’s traveling public. It should not be attempting to hand Princeton University this valuable public transportation asset.”

The petition is one of the legal actions which have been filed to try and halt the Dinky station relocation. “There are several lawsuits pending, so it will be interesting to see if any of them has traction,” Ms. Crumiller said.