Princeton politicians turned out in record numbers at a midweek Princeton Future (PF) meeting where the group’s downtown Light Rail (LR) proposal was unveiled. Aside from the PF inner circle there were only a few unaffiliated citizens present because the meeting was unadvertised.
In the plan the Dinky would be converted to LR and eventually extended up University Place to Nassau St. with 2 to 3 additional stops. The plan kept the Dinky station at its present site. Modern LR vehicles are designed for ground level loading so there is no need for grade separation. The mall in Princeton University’s proposed Arts District would have a train running through it; the pedestrians would just have to scatter. The train would have its own right of way (ROW) in the street and level with it on University Place; motor vehicles would also have to yield. Given the design, size and weight of LR vehicles, they are closer to busses than to trains. So essentially what we would have is a short Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on a track so it is unable to swerve to avoid collisions. Someone asked afterward about safety in these areas and the reply was that the train would only be going 5 mph. The average human walking speed is 3.1 mph. Considering the time for station stops along the way and the wait between scheduled trains one finds that walking would be faster. Try typing “light rail” collision* & car* into Google and see what comes up.
Planner Jim Constantine laid out how LR would fit in from a planning standpoint and continually referred to Portland State where LR runs through the campus. Well, Princeton is not Portland; we’ll never attain big city density. He gave a good presentation as usual. But just a few months age he gave an equally good presentation arguing that BRT was our solution. Which, if either, should we believe? The Central Jersey Transportation Forum’s 2002 study determined that LR was not economically feasible; that’s what led to the Route 1 BRT plan.
Rail passenger lobbyist Mr. May stated that LR has significantly lower operating costs than heavy rail. A recent NJT/DOT report states the opposite. Operating and maintenance costs for NJT LR is $1.01 per passenger mile; NJT Rail comes in at $.33 and NJT Bus at $.60.
Converting the existing Dinky run to LR would involve station grade modifications besides the cost of new trains. NJT is presently running older cars retired from other lines and there is probably a lifetime supply stored away so it is difficult to justify any new capital expenditures.
The Dinky can’t run more frequently than every 20 minutes because federal railroad rules require that the air brakes be tested at the beginning and end of each run. This involves manually applying the brakes via handwheel, releasing the air brakes and then reapplying them and verifying that they moved and finally releasing the handbrakes. The end result is 5 min of travel time followed by 5 min. of brake test time each way. The schedule must also allow crew and lunch breaks. If the run were 200 miles instead of 2 miles the brakes would be tested just a couple of times a day. The system is broken! One way to save the Dinky is to save the air brake testing.
Let’s look at the bigger picture:
*Energy costs are likely to double or triple in 10 years; energy inefficient public transit will no longer be viable. This alone could be the fate of the Dinky. As a planet, we simply cannot deplete our remaining fuel supplies unwisely.
*Public Transit in the US has been highly subsidized for years often in multiples of actual fares. Will the largesse continue? The trend will be to options that can actually break even. We’ve just seen the largest transportation project in the country cancelled with little forewarning.
*Traffic in Princeton will increase 55% by 2020 (NJDOT Projections). Our current in town public transit is based totally on busses will fail several times daily at peak times. Private vehicles will suffer equally.
*The fundamental ways the system operates will change. Systems will run on demand instead of on schedule so there will be no waiting for a ride; vehicles will be smaller and lighter; travel will be point to point without intermediate stops and systems will be totally automated thus eliminating operating personnel costs. To achieve these we will have to use the right sized tool for the job; size matters – smaller is better. Future systems must service the last mile to extend the reach of public transport. Systems must use dedicated ROWs totally independent of existing roads. A smaller vehicle that can change elevation and turn quickly allows the ROW to become 3 dimensional which allows it to be obtained in built up areas where conventional ROWs for other modes are unachievable.
Today there is emerging just such a technology; it is called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). The first system is undergoing final testing at Heathrow Airport. Others are in various stages throughout the world. A detailed study just released examines a PRT system to serve Ithaca, NY and Cornell University (http://www.issuu.com/simplylovelife/docs/executive_summary). In San Jose, CA a larger effort has begun. A high level Federal Transit Administration official expects a robust PRT program in the next budget. For the past 4 years I’ve been examining how PRT might be implemented in Princeton; there are many reasons why PRT should be our goal. For details visit http://www.spurts.org.
Supporters of the PF LR Plan and some members of Sustainable Princeton are proclaiming that LR is a sustainable option. Data from the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book (http://cta.ornl.gov/data/index.html) shows otherwise. Based on historical data LR consumes double the energy per passenger mile than heavy rail and 4 times the expected amount for PRT (which is equivalent to a motorcycle). The reasons for this spread are the ratio of vehicle to passenger weight and the scheduled service where rail and bus vehicles operate irrespective of the number of riders (PRT does not). An excellent article on green transportation which also summarizes the data graphically can be found at http://www.templetons.com/brad/transit-myth.html.
Rail and buses stop at multiple stops thus reducing average system speed. There is also waiting time because service is scheduled. These two factors alone discourage ridership.
The personal auto is so popular because it runs only when needed and goes point to point. The drawbacks are delays due to traffic and congestion and the fact that the resource is not shared among multiple public users.
Masquerading as a transportation plan the LR proposal is an attempt to block the University’s desire to move the Dinky station 460 feet farther out from downtown as an element of their Arts District proposal. Many people argue that the station move would decrease ridership and cause the death of the Dinky; the University argues the opposite. The Dinky will eventually die because of the other factors mentioned earlier; increasing ridership will just move the demise farther out. Two traditional ways to increase ridership are to build housing and to provide more last mile connections. The housing being built in Princeton now is so expensive it is hard to imagine those buyers filling lots of seats. On the other hand, PRT would be an excellent way to achieve increases and extend the reach of public transportation and its energy efficiency is a factor of 4 better than LR. When the Dinky’s final day arrives, PRT could take over.
People are afraid of change because it takes them out of their comfort zone; many won’t even investigate a new concept. Some local folks started a Save the Princeton Dinky Facebook page because they feared the Dinky would disappear and over 7000 people joined. The organizers now claim these same people are also all opposed to moving the station; this is not true. Princeton is not a progressive town; we come out in droves for the status quo.
It’s been 4 years since the University’s announcement and the Princeton Regional Planning Board (PRPB) has yet to even consider doing a comprehensive long range transportation plan; instead they assume the Dinky will last forever. Such a plan, performed by transit professionals, engineers, transit economists and transit planners with advanced degrees would be a detailed alternatives, engineering and cost benefit analysis of all options. The PRPB has neither the time nor the broad expertise to do this but it is clearly their responsibility to get it done by an outside organization. Federal money for such studies previously existed and may be restored. Under PRPB guidance the 2 Princetons could have submitted a joint proposal and asked the University for matching funds. Instead, they spent 4 years dickering over 460 ft; too much politics and too little planning.
Princeton Future says the public is opposed to the station move and the PRPB should prohibit it. Using that logic, why have a PRPB at all? — simply make up a survey and send it around with the revaluation. The LR plan is similar in many ways to the enhanced Princeton BRT plan floated and defeated last year. They are both political plans crafted without detailed professional studies to support them. The study, not the politics, should come first.
The University has spent a lot on their plan and feels that the station move is an integral part of it. Some of the politicians are talking compromise. A compromise between a good plan and a bad plan is a mediocre plan. In a compromise each side gives up something. A lot of the politicians (boro in particular) demand that the University abandon the station move. If that happens the Arts District might well be built on campus instead. One scenario would be to move all the facilities and shops to Alexander Rd. and build it in the areas thus vacated. This requires no zoning changes. So what would the town give up?
*The Wawa and the station would remain unchanged.
*Cars would still back out into traffic on lower Alexander Rd.
*No traffic improvements would be made to the Alexander / University Place intersection.
*Alexander Rd. would remain the backside entrance to town.
*The public would not have easy access to the Arts District thus reducing the intended interactions.
Wow, what a deal! Sounds like the status quo.
Consider a compromise for the future instead of one for the past:
It will probably take 6 years for the main Arts building and the new station and Wawa to get approved and built. By that time the public transit picture will be very different (and gas will be $6 a gallon). Work in the existing Dinky ROW is site work and can be done quickly at the end. In this scenario the town allows the station to move. The Dinky runs unchanged until the project end. Rights to the 460ft ROW remain available for undetermined future public transit but the University builds their plaza on it in the interim. The University funds a comprehensive study on future public transit options defined and guided by the PRPB, University and several citizen representatives.
But something else needs to happen here. The University needs to assume leadership in moving local public and campus transit into the future. This should also include some financial and fundraising commitment as well. They have assumed leadership in other areas such as architecture and green buildings, why not in transportation? They have a sustainability program; transportation is #2 in their energy budget yet they haven’t looked beyond busses, ridesharing and electric vehicles. If the implementation of an innovative, efficient public transit system were included in the plans then it truly would be the Arts and Transit District. Efficient transportation is critical to university operations, critical to the vitality of our towns and most importantly, it is critical to the planet’s future. We need world class leadership here.
Which compromise would you choose?
Princeton University will present its plan on Monday, January 31, at 7 p.m. in the Township building, 300 Witherspoon Street.
Crider received his PhD in Electrical Engineering in 1979 from Princeton University and owns a scientific instruments business in Princeton. He previously wrote about BRT/PRT in the March 24, 2010, U.S. 1. It can be found online at http://www.princetoninfo.com/index.php?option=com_us1more&Itemid=6&key=3-24-10%20prt
The column above is a longer version of the story that appeared in the January 26, 2011, print edition of U.S. 1.