Princeton’s Regional Planning Board voted last week to recommend to Borough Council that an ordinance to preserve the existing Dinky right-of-way is not consistent with Princeton’s master plan. The 6-3 vote was taken at a discussion during the Planning Board’s meeting last Thursday. Borough Council will consider the ordinance for adoption at a public hearing on May 22.
The ordinance was introduced on April 10 and was immediately questioned by Princeton University officials. The University plans to move the Dinky terminus 460 feet south to make way for its $300 million arts and transit development. Officials have said the ordinance would not be in keeping with the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the University and the two Princetons, which preserves an alternate right-of-way on Alexander Street for future transit use such as light rail.
At last week’s meeting, University Vice President Robert Durkee said the the move would place an encumbrance on University lands into the future. “It will be a gap of several hundred feet between the tracks and the new terminus,” he said. “It literally would not connect and could not connect to the new terminus.”
Establishing the existing right of way on the municipal map might not even be possible since Princeton University has already filed plans for the arts neighborhood, some of the board members said.
“I find it to be inconsistent with the master plan. I’m particularly concerned that it is inconsistent in the absence of a concurring ordinance from Princeton Township that would provide a complete right of way,” said Board member Marvin Reed.
His colleague Bernie Miller agreed. “It is completely inconsistent with the master plan and inconsistent with reality,” he said. “The right of way starts in the Borough at the Township line, but there is no companion right of way extending to the Township. Essentially what we’re creating was called in ‘Monopoly’ the short line, a 600-foot right-of-way reserved for future rail uses. It serves no purpose.”
Board member and Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller argued that the ordinance doesn’t place the governing bodies under any obligation. “It just preserves the option,” she said. “I would argue that it is supporting mass transit. The straight path is cheaper and faster. It’s more supportive of mass transit and the right-of-way that’s there.”
Borough Mayor Yina Moore, a member of the Planning Board, said she was surprised that the Board was not more assertive in taking its role to plan for future transit needs.
Several residents offered comments during the discussion, arguing that the easement is in the public domain and should cost the taxpayers nothing if a new operator takes over the train line. NJ Transit sold the land to the University in 1984, and was granted an easement as part of the deal. Under the agreement, the University was allowed to move the station only once, which it has already done, say members of Save the Dinky, which has filed a lawsuit on the issue. NJ Transit does not agree with that interpretation and has said that the University still has the right to move the station.
Resident Alain Kornhauser called it “an incredibly valuable asset owned by we the people.” Virginia Kerr said the right-of-way is consistent with the master plan. “We believe the contract only allowed one move, and that move has been made,” she said. “It would be futile for Borough Council to pass this ordinance …. This right-of-way ordinance is consistent with the master plan. Send it back with a recommendation.”
Peter Marks said he would not object to paying higher taxes in order to hold on to the Dinky. “Those of us who are eager to preserve the Dinky are willing to spend some money to do it,” he said. “I don’t want to steal anything from the University. But the University should not steal the right-of-way that belongs to the public.”