August 21, 2013

“Save the Dinky” Files Emergency Appeal

As NJ Transit and Princeton University prepare to close the Dinky train station on August 26 and move passengers to a temporary platform and waiting room 1,210 feet away, the citizen group Save the Dinky has asked the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to temporarily halt the approval it granted NJ Transit last year to dismantle the existing station.

The emergency application was filed with DEP Commissioner Bob Martin and with Rich Boornazian, the assistant commissioner for Historic and Natural Resources, who approved NJ Transit’s request to abandon historic protection for the station in order to accommodate the University’s plans for a $330 million arts neighborhood. Plans call for the station’s two buildings, which are across University Place from McCarter Theatre, to be converted into a restaurant and cafe, while a new station designed by architect Steven Holl will be built 460 feet to the south.

Save the Dinky filed the stay application because the relocation of the station could include removal of train infrastructure and shortening of the track. An appeal of the 2012 decision is not due to be heard until later this fall.

The temporary platform is scheduled to be open for a year to 18 months. The University is planning to put an access road to its Lot 7 parking garage over the existing train line. According to a press release from Save the Dinky, the relocation project will “Й have an irreversible and catastrophic effect on the station by ending the station’s transportation function, removing its character-defining elements, and destroying a railroad right-of-way dating back to 1865, through abandonment and conversion to non-rail use.”

The Dinky carries passengers between the campus and the Princeton Junction train station, which is on the Northeast Corridor line. The station was built in 1918 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Sites in 1973. According to the Save the Dinky website, late Princeton Borough Mayor Barbara Sigmund formed a committee in the early 1970s to save the line when the financial crisis of the railroads threatened to eliminate the Princeton Branch. Ms. Sigmund was mayor when NJ Transit sold the Dinky station complex to the University in 1984.

Save the Dinky wants to preserve the buildings as they are, along with a right-of-way to the station, but the University has maintained that it has the right to relocate the station and convert the buildings for another use.

Anita Garoniak, president of Save the Dinky, said in the release, “If we cannot get a stay, we will have no station left to argue about by the time the courts rule.”

Save the Dinky is involved in three other legal actions to try and save the station. The group is also part of a petition made by railroad passenger groups asking the federal Surface Transportation Board to rule that NJ Transit needs federal approval before pursuing its plans to abandon the station.

The current DEP application maintains that the requested stay is not only appropriate but in the public interest. “A stay will preserve the subject matter of the appeal and preserve confidence in the neutrality of the administrative processes that have been established under law to protect New Jersey’s historic environmental resources,” it reads.

Charles Montange, the Seattle-based attorney representing Save the Dinky in connection with the federal regulatory aspect of the case, said that it is not unusual for developers to acquire railroad property without complying with federal law.

“NJ Transit has frequently ignored federal regulations and is pretty much ignoring them here,” he said. “Their argument is that they don’t think it applies. I don’t think they’ve thought it through.”