Back in the 1990s, watching the OJ Simpson case unfold on Court TV, I felt as if an entire law school program could be taught around that single case. More recently, watching the issues being raised in West Windsor over the potential redevelopment of the Princeton Junction train station area, I have wondered if a masters in urban planning could be taught using just West Windsor as the case study.
The West Windsor training comes in handy for my current endeavor: Trying to sort out the pros and cons of the Princeton University’s new campus plan, particularly the proposed arts neighborhood around McCarter Theater and the popular 24-hour WaWa convenience store. The controversial part of the master plan for that neighborhood is the university’s proposal to move the existing Dinky train station, connecting Princeton commuters to the main line of the railroad at Princeton Junction, 400 feet further down the track from its present location.
Mass transit proponents argue that, if anything, the dinky station should be moved 400 feet toward the heart of Princeton. The university, which proposes the move in order to make other traffic related improvements at the intersection of University Place and Alexander Street, argues that 400 feet — not much more than a football field — will have little or no adverse impact on the Dinky.
Let me add two cents, gleaned from a session just last Sunday studying the proposed redevelopment at the train station in West Windsor. Great spaces and great places are created by lots of small details, declared Gianni Longo, the principal in the Manhattan-based firm ACP Visioning and Planning.
To Longo’s premise I would add a corollary: At crowded public places such as train stations, 400 feet is no small detail; it’s a great distance. U.S. 1 and its sister paper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, have about a dozen newspaper vending boxes at the train station. Along with our many competitors we jockey for position. Forget 400 feet, a change of just four feet in the location of a box can result in dramatic differences in the number of papers taken.
For all those reasons I’m sympathetic to the argument that the Dinky ought to stay where it is.
But I also think this is time to reconsider the rail-based Dinky train. Here’s the reality: The train, operated by highly paid engineers, goes from Princeton to Princeton Junction and back. Then, for about 20 minutes out of every half hour, it sits idle at the now inconveniently located Dinky station.
Here’s my fantasy: What if the Dinky were replaced by a rubber wheeled vehicle, or several such vehicles. It could run on that dedicated right of way and use that dedicated bridge over Route 1 between Washington and Alexander roads to get to the main line just as quickly as the Dinky does today.
But then, instead of sitting idly at the station, it could drive through the heart of Princeton Borough, picking up passengers at the Nassau Inn or maybe down Nassau Street near Thomas Sweet Ice Cream (a few hundred feet from my house, which is another reason why I am so much in favor of this idea). The university could move the Dinky station 400 feet down the line or eliminate it — passengers don’t need a station to hop a bus.
But some of those who argue against moving the Dinky 400 feet further from downtown have concerns about replacing the train with a bus:
1.) Once you put a bus into traffic you run the risk of it getting caught in traffic, and if that bus also serves commuters trying to catch a particular train to New York, that would be a disaster.
2.) A bus might not be able to accommodate the rush hour commuters trying to get to the main line — another potential disaster.
Instead of a bus, some people are hoping for an old fashioned trolley, which could serve the Dinky line but also continue its way up University Place to Nassau Street — all you would need to do is remove the existing parking on University Place.
Going back to my course work for the West Windsor redevelopment: The organizer of last Sunday’s session was developer Steve Goldin, who owns the 25-acre plot that houses 14 Washington Park, the office center immediately next to the station. Goldin, hoping to jumpstart the process that has been mired down in West Windsor politics, noted that he practices “reality-based” planning.
The reality in Princeton is that no one is going to give up parking if they can avoid it. As for the other objections to bus rapid transit, the buses of today, equipped with devices that can change traffic lights to green as they approach, can navigate traffic as well as street cars.
If a bus breaks down or if another bus is suddenly needed to handle a rush hour crowd of commuters, another bus can be pulled from a network of buses that will be serving other parts of the bus rapid transit (BRT) system envisioned for the greater Princeton community — the Princeton Junction station already is projected to be the hub of that system. And Princeton University now has a bus system serving its various “neighborhoods,” and Princeton Borough is implementing its own jitney system.
The trick would be getting all those entities to work together — the beginning of another course of study, this time in public policy.