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Vol. LXV, No. 41
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
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Borough Council Approves Transit Agreement

Anne Levin

Strong emotions were expressed at a meeting of Borough Council last Tuesday, October 4, ending with the approval of a controversial transit agreement with Princeton University and Princeton Township. Council voted 3-2 in favor of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which begins to clear the way for the University to move the Dinky station 460 feet further away from town and build an arts complex.

The meeting was held one day after members of the citizen group Save the Dinky filed a lawsuit October 3 to try to stop the University from moving forward with its plan.

“There are very limited options to keep the University from proceeding as they had proposed,” said Councilman Roger Martindell at the meeting. “I’m not enthusiastic about this. I wish the University had not decided to move the Dinky. It’s bad public policy, it’s bad for the community, it’s bad as a transportation issue, it’s bad as a climate issue. But the bottom line is they say they are going to do it anyway. The question is what to do in response that is best for the community. We came up with this proposal.”

Mr. Martindell, Barbara Trelstad, and Kevin Wilkes voted in favor of the proposal, while Council members Jenny Crumiller and Jo Butler voted against it. David Goldfarb recused himself because of his employment with the law firm that represents the University.

The agreement includes an initial transit study, more funding from the University, a traffic study, and a second transit study. The University would contribute $450,000 for illuminated crosswalks at three locations on Nassau Street. The period for a new right of way along Alexander would be increased form 50 to 65 years. A transit task force would be created to study future transit as well as mass transit issues. A second study, which would look at traffic issues in Princeton as a whole, would be implemented once the University files its arts center plans. New projects such as the housing at Merwick would be the focus of that study.

There were numerous comments from the public during the meeting. Among the few to urge passage of the MOU was Jill Jachera, Republican candidate for mayor of the Borough. “We are on a collision course with our largest taxpayer, our largest landowner,” she said. Ms. Jachera praised the Borough, Township, and University for their collaboration on the MOU, calling it a step in the right direction. “Without the Memorandum of Understanding and the arts center, we gain nothing,” she said.

Democratic candidate Yina Moore spoke out against the agreement, as did several other people, most of whom are Borough residents. “What is the rush? Why does this have to be done now?,” said Ms. Moore, urging the Council to wait until after the November election when the public votes on whether or not to consolidate the Borough and Township.

“I have two new heroines tonight, especially Mrs. Crumiller,” said Borough resident Anne Waldron Neumann, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We are going to fight for you. This MOU is a cynical insult to the people who are not associated with the University.”

“Bless you,” Mr. Martindell responded.

Rodney Fisk, another plaintiff in the suit, said a future light rail system along a new right of way on Alexander Street would not be able to make as many trips as the Dinky does, and would have little chance of federal funding. “You are about to endorse a memorandum of capitulation, and I urge you to reject it,” he said.

Borough resident Clifford Zink said the agreement’s promises don’t make up for what would be lost. “I think it’s bad urban planning to take an amenity close to town and move it out,” he said. “Rail should be close to downtown. Since there is no urgency, table it. Get citizens involved and let the zoning board do it’s job.”

There was some smirking in the audience as University Vice President Bob Durkee spoke in response to the many statements against the MOU. Several people said the moving of the Dinky station would be the beginning of the end of the historic train service between Princeton and Princeton Junction and the Northeast Corridor line.

“There is no desire to get rid of the Dinky,” he said. “More than half the riders are University-related, and it is important to us.

Addressing the doubt expressed by one resident about a statement in the Memorandum that the new arts center will have facilities not available in New York or Philadelphia, Mr. Durkee said that the University’s proposed experimental media studio does not exist in either of those cities, and would be something unique. In response to another comment that the University has threatened to hold back its voluntary payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT), he said that was not the case.

“What President Tilghman said is that the level of contribution would of course depend on whether the town is able to work with us to meet our needs,” he said. “I need to clarify, it was never our intention to dissolve the contribution from the University.”

Each of the Council Members delivered personal statements about how they came to their decisions to vote for or against the agreement. Mrs. Trelstad said she voted for it reluctantly. “We have to move forward,” she said. Mr. Wilkes, who is an architect, said the first drawing he did regarding the MOU was in 2008, before he became a member of Council. “I’m voting yes with the hope that we will all work together to improve transit and increase ridership,” he said.

Calling the MOU “a sloppy document,” Mrs. Butler urged Council to postpone the vote and add an amendment voicing Council’s opposition to moving the Dinky station. But the majority did not agree and the amendment was not added. Mrs. Crumiller’s argument against the MOU was that it does not value the existing straight shot right-of-way, parking lot and Dinky terminus. “It is a quid pro quo agreement settled behind closed doors and made under threat,” she said. “The university has clearly given us the hostile message that even if we don’t rezone, it will move the station anyway. We might as well get something out of it. That’s what it’s come down to.”

Township Committee will consider the Memorandum of Understanding at a meeting later this month.

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