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Vol. LXIV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
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Overflow Crowd Has Strong Opinions About Dinky, BRT

Dilshanie Perera

The Regional Planning Board meeting last week was packed by those with strong opinions about transit and transportation options in town. The overflow crowd had gathered to hear presentations proposing alternatives to the Dinky, the vehicle operating along the one-track rail line that connects Princeton to Princeton Junction, as well as statements advocating the preservation or augmentation of it.

Board Chair Wanda Gunning explained that discussions by the Master Plan Subcommittee of the Planning Board regarding Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) have been ongoing for the past two years. She said, “The question is: What is the right choice for Princeton now and in the future?”

No formal action was taken at the meeting, and Ms. Gunning assured the audience that further discussion would take place at Township Committee and Borough Council. No changes were made to the Princeton Community Master Plan.

Master Plan Subcommittee Chair Marvin Reed explained the proposal for a BRT dedicated roadway, acknowledging that the plan is “controversial” because it would exist as an alternative to the Dinky. Such a bus would also have the possibility of circulating through the downtown.

“This is not just another bus,” Mr. Reed said of the plan. “If it were just another bus, we wouldn’t be making this presentation to you.”

The BRT would feature a rubber wheeled, low-emissions, low-rise vehicle, with “enhanced station stops,” and priority roadways. Mr. Reed also reported that the vehicles would be equipped with a remote control to preempt traffic light signals.

Characterizing the moment as a good one in which to “get ac community dialogue going,” Mr. Reed acknowledged that “nothing is fixed, and the route is presently under discussion,” with New Jersey Transit.

The goal would be to utilize state and federal funding in order to get such a system up and running, he added.

Anita Garoniak, who, together with Lieve Monnens, started up the “Save the Dinky” Facebook group, gave a presentation punctuated by applause from the crowd. “The Dinky is efficient, reliable, used, and is part of Princeton’s culture,” she said.

Worrying that if the Dinky were replaced by the BRT, “we could be left with an expensive bus that no one rides,” Ms. Garoniak said that her research suggested that bus rapid transit works best in large metropolitan areas and that the population of Princeton cannot support a BRT system. “The town buses are already underused.”

“Let the Dinky augment the BRT way if it is ever built,” Ms. Garoniak said.

Andrew Koontz, who is also a member of Borough Council, was proposing to preserve the Dinky, but have it operate in a subterranean cut along its existing tracks, thereby allowing for unimpeded space at ground level that could be the “barrier-free pedestrian plaza,” that the University is seeking for the development of its Arts and Transit Neighborhood, he said.

Noting that his colleague, Professor Alain Kornhauser, called for taking the plan further and tunneling underground through the University’s campus to a Dinky stop at Palmer Square, Mr. Koontz highlighted the benefits of the plan, which include little modification to the University’s designs, and preserving rail service to Princeton.

Michael Ogg voiced his support for the Dinky, remarking that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” A wheelchair user, he is a “frequent rider of the Dinky, as well as buses, light rail, Septa, MTA… I’m very familiar with different transportation modalities.” He characterized the Dinky as being the easiest form of public transit to access. “In the years and countless times I’ve used the Dinky, I don’t think I have ever held up other passengers.”

Chip Crider made a presentation in favor of what he called the Speedy Princeton Urban Rapid Transit System, which would involve personal rapid transit modules on a dedicated railway.

Members of the public offered their comments and support for or critiques of the plans proposed during the three-hour-long meeting.

Kip Cherry proposed creating a parking garage to support the current Dinky, while Andrew Erlichson noted that “continuous train service into Princeton is important to downtown businesses.”

Others brought up the cost of massive renovations or adding to or subtracting from the current system in place.

Princeton University Vice President Bob Durkee noted that the future of the Dinky is “really a decision for the community,” though he pointed out that as an institution, the University has “had a very close attachment to the Dinky for a very long time.”

“Our concern is that a rapid transit connection between Princeton and Princeton Junction be maintained,” he added.

Ms. Gunning noted that “we all need some time to digest what we’ve heard.” Future meetings about BRT, transportation, and the Dinky will likely be held during the Master Plan Subcommittee meetings of the planning board.

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