April 16, 2014

Alexander Street Task Force Takes Next Step

At its meeting April 7, Princeton Council voted unanimously to pass a resolution allowing the Alexander Street University Place Task Force to apply for federal funding. If obtained, the money will permit the committee of two local citizens, two representatives from Princeton University, and two members of Princeton Council to further explore how traffic along the Alexander Street corridor is going to change in coming years, particularly as the University completes its $330 million Arts & Transit expansion project.

It is a topic of increasing interest, especially in light of a statement issued by the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers saying that NJ Transit has confirmed a 10.4 percent decrease in ridership on the Dinky train since the station was moved to a temporary location at the beginning of construction last summer. Those figures are disputed by the University, which maintains that use of a temporary bus shuttle during construction must be taken into account when compiling such statistics.

What is certain is that traffic on Alexander Street is due for a doubling in 15 years, according to former Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes, a member of the task force. “If we do something now, maybe we can manage it,” he said.
“That’s the baseline.”

The task force wants to reach out to West Windsor, Mercer County, and the New Jersey Department of Transportation to form an alliance. “That way, we all go and petition as one group to get money from the federal government to do the next level of design and study on options for improving transit and upgrades to the Dinky to improve ridership,” Mr. Wilkes said.

Analyzing car and bus traffic coming into town on the Alexander Street corridor, and looking at how it affects traffic on Washington Road and Harrison Street, has been the focus of the task force, which was originally formed two years ago and then reassembled after consolidation. “We’ve come to find that it’s really complicated,” Mr. Wilkes said. “In a nutshell, Alexander is due for a significant increase in traffic density in the future if projects that have been announced in West Windsor along Route 1 come to pass.”

The task force is also looking into options that could enhance the Dinky train. Making it possible to add additional stops on the trip between Princeton Junction and Princeton is a way to add ridership and lessen traffic congestion. “We would need to create something on the Dinky line that has more than just two terminal stops. Because if it could stop, for example, at Route 1, or a remote parking facility the University would like to build in West Windsor, or Carnegie Center, or all of the above, we could intercept people from driving into the community,” Mr. Wilkes said. “We could make it an advantage for them to ride the shuttle and hopefully peel off some of those cars.”

Exploring the possibilities, the task force is looking at something “…probably along the lines of a streetcar or light rail system that would use the same tracks as the Dinky,” Mr. Wilkes said. “We would have to do some modifications, but in order to capture the maximum infrastructure, it has to be something that works on the Dinky rails.”

The Dinky itself can’t make multiple stops. “It’s a system really designed with two terminal stops. It’s not quick to brake. It’s a heavy rail car, and lighter rail cars are more nimble,” Mr. Wilkes said. “So we’re working on trying to figure out options in that environment. We looked at other types of transit, like a taxi on a dedicated guideway, but we have no capital infrastructure to even start, whereas with the Dinky, we do.”

In addition to consulting with West Windsor and Mercer County, the task force wants to meet with the local community about it’s plans before making any final recommendations. “There is still more work to be done, and that’s why we’re applying for federal money,” said Mr. Wilkes, who serves on the committee with fellow citizen Nat Bottigheimer, Council members Lance Liverman and Patrick Simon, and Princeton University representatives Kristin Appelget and Kim Jackson. “To my knowledge,” he added, “this is the first time the University, elected officials and private citizens have worked collaboratively for the future. That’s the greatest thing. We’ve got people working together.”