While local and regional officials continue to work on solutions to the traffic circulation element of the plan for the Princeton Junction redevelopment area, West Windsor officials say one important question remains to be answered: What is it exactly that NJ Transit envisions for its 27-plus acres of land?
Representatives from the township, as well as the state Department of Transportation, Mercer County, New Jersey Transit, the West Windsor Parking Authority, RMJM Hillier, and InterCap Holdings have been meeting since the beginning of summer with the goal of eventually making crucial decisions, based on consensus of all parties, as to how the traffic circulation should be configured.
Some of the decisions the “Interagency Task Force” is examining are whether Vaughn Drive will be a local or regional or state-funded road; the design of the Washington Road intersection; the grading necessary to traverse the Dinky line’s super elevated grade; the number and spacing of road crossings of the Dinky Line; the general alignment location and the right-of-way width of the Bus Rapid Transit within the redevelopment area; and potential alternative locations for structured and surface commuter parking.
While review of traffic data collected by their own traffic experts, as well as data collected by InterCap Holdings, which owns 25 acres in the redevelopment area, has allowed officials to build some consensus on the important matters, discussions during the latest meeting on August 21 put the spotlight on NJ Transit.
Knowing what NJ Transit envisions for its 27-plus acres of property at the train station is important because officials need to tie traffic circulation to the land uses on the properties in the redevelopment area, including NJ Transit’s. Those uses include potential for parking garages or surface parking lots, and NJ Transit’s property has been contemplated as a possible location for those uses.
While NJ Transit representative Jack Kanarek said during the meeting that NJ Transit is working on pictorial representations for its Bus Rapid Transit system, which it was scheduled to present to a subgroup of officials in the weeks following the meeting, questions over the use of its land were brought to a head when West Windsor Planning Board Chairman Marvin Gardner directly asked him what the NJ Transit was contemplating doing as part of an overall redevelopment plan.
Gardner said that NJ Transit officials continue to say they are supportive of redevelopment in the Princeton Junction train station area, but “from my perspective, I’d like to see more on the table from NJ Transit.”
“I need something to make me feel comfortable that you guys are a real partner in the process,” Gardner said.
West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh echoed the sentiment, saying that NJ Transit is the largest property owner in the redevelopment area, followed by InterCap and West Windsor Township. He says he also wants to see NJ Transit present “exactly what will be the appropriate land use patterns for your 27 acres.”
“As long as we area all on the same page, we can come up with something we can work with,” Hsueh said.
Councilwoman Heidi Kleinman asked if a vision plan NJ Transit created for its property in 2003 is still a current assessment of NJ Transit’s feelings and opinions of the tract. Explaining it further in more detail, Gardner said the plan, referred to as the Princeton Junction Vision Study, contained attractive brochures and diagrams for a transit village at the time.
“Have there been any alterations on the part of NJ Transit?” Gardner asked.
In response, Kanarek said that the study was done at a “very sketch-plan level,” and, in comparing it to plans that Hillier and InterCap had created, it essentially had everything the other plans had, Kanarek said. “Things haven’t changed very much,” he said, adding, however, that at the time, there was no traffic analysis done or available, as is currently, and NJ Transit officials are working with the new information now. If there are any changes in opinion, he said he would let the group know.
Still, Gardner said, “I’m concerned we’re going to get so far down the road” on redevelopment, when NJ Transit or another entity involved in the redevelopment area “throws its hands up,” saying redevelopment won’t work, or that certain aspects of the plans might be too expensive, and officials would have “wasted all this taxpayer money.”
A concern briefly discussed in prior meetings has been the fiscal health of the state. Gardner asked Kanarek whether, despite fiscal constraints, it has considered “public-private partnerships that could bring in a lot of capital to NJ Transit,” similar to what has been done in Hamilton or Morristown.
“You have to tell us what you want to see there,” which will “enable us to think more clearly in terms of the overall concept plan,” Gardner said.
In Morristown, a real estate transaction enabled NJ Transit land to be incorporated into a transit village, and in Hamilton, a revenue-financing agreement with a private developer enabled NJ Transit to build a much-needed 1,000-space parking deck with no capital outlay. NJ Transit officials have emphasized their willingness to look into something similar in Princeton Junction.
Kanarek said NJ Transit officials are working on it, but see it as a collaborative process. “We hear you,” he said, adding it will be time soon to come to the table with West Windsor officials regarding specific plans.
Kanarek reported that NJ Transit has initiated work with the Louis Berger Group, of Morristown, its BRT consultant, to help in identifying the Dinky, BRT, and Core Area design issues and investigating physically and operational plans. “We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to develop a concept that will fit into the plan,” Kanarek said.
Another major landowner in the redevelopment area, Steve Goldin, the CEO of InterCap Holdings, said that in anticipation that development on his property would be among the first phases, and that his development would require demolition of the current buildings located there, he would be willing to use a portion of his property to dedicate as a temporary train station parking lot while a garage (which may have to overlap current surface parking lots, thus taking away current parking spaces) is constructed. “If our land is available, and half of it is torn down, let them use the InterCap property to house the cars,” he said.
This is why an infrastructure phasing plan is among the work still needed to be done by the task force, township traffic consultant Gary Davies pointed out, because the new garages may stomp on old parking lots, and officials need to know whether the garages may go, which will rely on further studies by the parking authority’s consultant.
Still, Davies pointed out that “this is not a huge traffic-generating plan,” because most of the traffic that is associated with the train station comes from commuter and regional traffic. Officials around the table agreed that with or without redevelopment, there is a traffic problem. This prompted Gardner to reiterate his feelings that specific plans from NJ Transit are needed.
Gardner said alleviating regional traffic in the area comes down to what the government does to fix the problem. In some cases, officials from all sides of the spectrum have opted for smaller roads because there is not always enough money to do more. And with a traffic problem that will remain with or without redevelopment, township officials need to know that the other agencies involved won’t say, “‘We’d love to do it, we’ve collaborated with you, and effort and money have gone into it, but we just can’t do it,’” he said.
The next meeting of the interagency task force is scheduled for Thursday, September 25, at 1:30 p.m., at which time the first concept plan for the traffic circulation and land uses will be presented for feedback.
That plan will feature general conclusions already reached — including that grade separations will probably not be needed at the Washington Road intersections; that traffic volumes north of the Dinky are higher and will need wider streets, but are compatible with office and parking uses; that significant intersection improvements will probably be needed on Alexander Road; and that traffic estimates indicate that ongoing/approved chances in the street network east of the Northeast Corridor Line (Route 571 cross-section and Alexander/North Post roundabout in particular) will effectively constrain traffic volumes able to reach the west side of the line.