Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 31
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
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Options for Streetcars or Light Rail Are Presented to Borough Council

Anne Levin

If a plan presented to Princeton Borough Council last week were to be realized, streetcars or light rail would carry passengers between Princeton Junction station and Nassau Street. Three stops would be made along the route, which would run on the track currently used by the Dinky, veering off through the former Grover Lumber property and then connecting to Alexander Street and up into town.

This vision of a more transit-friendly Princeton is the result of a study commissioned last year by Princeton Future, and was presented to that organization earlier this year. The study was carried out by students at The Urban Design Studio at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and the San-Francisco-based URS Corporation, which provides transit planning and engineering.

Shared with the Council by architect Jim Constantine, who taught the team; one of the students who worked on the plan; and a representative from URS, the study examines what would happen if the Dinky became a “one seat ride to Nassau Street,” Mr. Constantine said.

The lighter vehicle line, which would replace the heavier Dinky trains, would be able to run alongside traffic on the roadway. Under the proposal, the University would implement its plan to move the Dinky station 460 feet south of its current location. Streetcars, which once ran on Witherspoon and Alexander streets, would require less stabilization on the tracks and less foundation support, reducing construction costs for the new part of the track.

“The streetcar is about a complete change in transportation,” said Mr. Constantine, citing examples carried out by URS in Portland, Oregon; Little Rock, Arkansas; Tampa, Florida; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and abroad. “Streetcars fit well in smaller cities and towns,” he said.

Installation of a streetcar line is typically between $25 million to $35 million a mile, and light rail is twice that. But the line in Princeton would cost less because a dedicated right-of-way already exists. The estimated cost, between $13.2 and $25 million, could be offset by government grants, naming rights, and public-private partnerships.

Rutgers graduate student Ben Jacobs, who worked on the proposal, said the three stops on the line would be on lower Alexander Street south of Faculty Road, across from Forbes College, and at the intersection of University Place and Nassau street. “We decided to use three stops that are five minute walks from each other,” he said. “The entire corridor is walkable.”

The route “could interact peacefully with the arts district,” Mr. Jacobs said. The Forbes stop would be the main university gateway, while the French Market at the top of University Place would serve as a celebratory entrance to Nassau Street.

Asked by Councilman Roger Martindell why this proposal was important, Mr. Constantine replied, “Transit isn’t just about moving people. It’s about animating and livening the whole place.”

University environments are the most transit-friendly and transit-savvy, Council members were told by Stephen Gazillo Director of Transportation Planning at URS. “Streetcars are pedestrian-friendly place-makers,” he said. “They can operate on local streets, in mixed traffic with automobiles and bicycles.”

Mr. Martindell asked if Princeton has the critical population mass for such a system. Mr. Gazello cited Kenosha, Wisconsin as an example of a system implemented in a similar-size area. “We’re seeing smaller and smaller communities come to us. Look at our history. Streetcars operated all over the place, and they operated here.”

Speaking during the public comment section of the meeting, Princeton Future member Sheldon Sturges said the organization would like the University and municipal officials to work together to determine long-term transit needs. Under the current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the University, Borough and Township, these discussions can not begin until the Planning Board approves the University’s arts and transit rezoning proposal.

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