Princeton’s Exile of Dinky Train Pits Locals Against Ivy League

Princeton, New Jersey, can cope with the headache of a $330 million construction zone around its Ivy League university, the town’s biggest taxpayer. Disrespect for the Dinky, though, is another matter.

Since 1865, the two-car train has been residents’ New York connection, its station a landmark amid Princeton University’s Gothic towers. The 2.7-mile (4.3 kilometer) run between campus and Princeton Junction, where New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains stop, is the shortest scheduled commuter rail in the U.S., according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The line has been even shorter since August, when the university closed the terminal and redirected riders 1,200 feet south to make room for an arts center. The result is a town-and-gown blow-up. In this case, the town is among New Jersey’s wealthiest and the gowns are worn where professors include economist Paul Krugman and writer Joyce Carol Oates, and among the alumni are President James Madison, Inc. founder Jeffrey Bezos and Queen Noor of Jordan.

Save the Dinky, a citizens group, calls the temporary train platform a “Soviet-style wooden structure” that demeans the station’s place in history. More maddening than the aesthetics, they say, is that Princeton University, with an endowment of $18.2 billion, acts as if it knows what’s best for its hometown.

“This community is a highly sophisticated one that knows its own needs,” said Bruce Afran, 53, a lawyer who has lived in town since 1990 and represents Save The Dinky and individual residents in three lawsuits seeking to stop the move. “They don’t need paternalism from the university.”

Cultural Benefits

The arts project that prompted the Dinky reconfiguration will be “a nexus of both campus and community life” when it’s done in 2017, according to the school’s website. In 2011, Governor Chris Christie praised its “substantial economic development and cultural benefits” and urged local government in a letter to work with the university.

At least six lawsuits or legal petitions seek to stop the move, on grounds including local and state approvals, historic designation and easement awards, according to Afran. The university about 100 years ago moved the Dinky about a quarter-mile south of the downtown to accommodate dormitories. When construction is completed, the station will be 460 feet farther from the town center.

Frustrated Riders

“By constructing a proposed arts building atop the right-of-way of the current rail line, the university will forever preclude the future possibility of the Dinky being extended back toward town,” said a January 2011 news release by Princeton Future, a nonpartisan, nonprofit planning group.

Almost four months into the temporary set-up, some riders are frustrated with traffic and a parking lot that took the place of curbside drop-offs, said Jenny Crumiller, 54, a Democratic member of the Borough Council. From the closed station, pedestrians must walk a detour to the temporary stop.

“Every bit of distance you move a station from the town center, you’ll get a drop-off of ridership,” Crumiller said. “Moving the station is going to marginalize the Dinky, so that we may eventually lose that transportation link.”

By mid-2014, a permanent station will replace the wooden platform where Abby Williams, 21, a university senior, waited for a visitor Dec. 7.

“It’s inconvenient -- it’s a longer trek for us,” said Williams, an English major from Atlanta. “But new students aren’t going to know the difference, and it’s going to be a major plus for the community.”

Deep Thinking

Princeton, halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, was settled in 1696. For a few months in 1783, it was the nation’s capital. Residents have included the physicist Albert Einstein, Phish musician Trey Anastasio and “Jaws” author Peter Benchley.

The community has shown an ability to navigate situations that few others have tackled. In November 2011, voters in Princeton borough and township, with combined populations of 40,000, consolidated their governments, an effort that had failed at least three times over 60 years.

The merger was championed by Christie, 51, a Republican, to reduce property taxes in a state where they average $7,885, highest in the U.S. Princeton Borough’s levy in 2012 was double that, $15,742, and its average home value was $748,155.

One Volunteer

Princeton was the only taker after Christie signed legislation to allow the state to pay municipal merger costs. In April, the united town introduced a $61 million budget, about 5 percent less than the separate 2012 spending.

Christie has ties to the university, also. By virtue of office, he is a trustee. His 20-year-old son, Andrew, plays catcher on the baseball team. Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, the state treasurer, is a graduate, as is Christie’s first chief of staff, Richard Bagger.

Neither Colin Reed nor Michael Drewniak, spokesmen for Christie, replied to an e-mailed request for comment on the Dinky.

The school in 2012 had the fifth-largest endowment among U.S. colleges, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, a Washington lobbying and research group. Its holdings grew 11.7 percent to $18.2 billion in the fiscal year ended June 30, the university reported.

Largest Taxpayer

Though much of the university is exempt, the school in 2013 made a property-tax contribution of $8.35 million, the borough’s biggest share, according to Bob Durkee, a school spokesman. It gave local government $2.5 million in voluntary payments this year, more than 10 times the 2003 contribution.

Once the arts project is complete, public spaces and shops will surround a center named for Peter B. Lewis, whose $101 million donation in 2006 was the largest single gift in school history, according to the Princeton website. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corp., the fourth-largest U.S. auto insurer, was 80 when he died on Nov. 23 of a heart attack.

“Most of the community, now that they’re seeing this take shape, see how wonderful this contribution is going to be,” Durkee said of the center. “There are a handful of people who are filing lawsuits who show up at all the public meetings. I think it’s unfortunate. I think it’s sad. I don’t think it’s helpful in any way to the community or the relationship to the community.”

Working Together

At a Dec. 2 meeting with borough officials and residents, university president Christopher Eisgruber, 52, said he was proud of the project, though “regretful of the ruptures,” according to a university news release.

“We have found ways to work together on projects, including some that have proven very difficult in the past,” he said. “I hope that we can continue to do that.”

Five days after the meeting, Sam Van Culin, an 83-year-old retired Episcopal clergyman from Washington stepped off the train to nothing he remembered from his days as member of Princeton’s class of 1952.

The trailer serving as a waiting room was locked, and an icy wind left his face tear-streaked as he waited for his ride. His New Jersey Transit train on the Northeast Corridor line had been late, he said, and the Dinky conductor never got word.

“I graduated 60 years ago, when people actually talked with each other,” Van Culin said.