Nobody is going to go on the record about it yet, but it looks like a streetcar is going to emerge as the most attractive option from Princeton’s Alexander Street Transit Study.
At a public consultation attended by about 40 people last Saturday, November 9, consultants and committee members of the Alexander Street/University Place Traffic and Transit Task Force presented their preliminary findings. The Task Force has a mission to examine options to upgrade transit connections between Nassau Street and Princeton Junction Amtrak station.
Many residents in Princeton believe that the construction of Princeton University’s Arts and Transit project, which involves moving the Dinky Station further away from the downtown, will make transit less available to local people. People only use transit if it is within a 5-10 minute walk, so it would be much more helpful to extend train service into more central parts of Princeton, instead of moving it further away.
But as we reported previously, heavy rail cannot be extended through local streets. The Transit committee already terminated discussion of a heavy rail extension, and also nixed the possibility of a high-tech Personal Rapid Transit system. What does that leave?
- Light rail
- Some sort of bus, variously labeled ‘Bus Rapid Transit‘, or ‘Enhanced Bus Service‘.
Everybody involved with the study is at pains to point out that each of these options remains very much on the table, and that lots and lots of details still have to be worked out before they can even make final suggestions. But the technical limitations of light rail, most notably the large turning circle of the trains, make it poorly suited for the tight turns required on local roads leading to Nassau Street. Buses offer several advantages: they are [relatively] inexpensive and easy-to-implement, and could connect more areas of the town to Princeton Junction. But any attempt to replace, or even complement Dinky rail service with a bus is likely to provoke a firestorm of political controversy that would have elected officials running for the hills.
A streetcar emerges as the only viable option for technical and political reasons. But would it be any good? There is every reason to think a streetcar could be successful. Distinctive orange streetcars, potentially using clean energy from the University’s solar array, would be a worthy upgrade from the 70s-era Dinky rolling stock. A streetcar could use much of the existing infrastructure along the Dinky right-of-way, but continue on local roads to bring transit service to the heart of Princeton, thereby fulfilling many of the potential advantages we proposed for a ‘dual-mode vehicle‘. Streetcars are a proven technology- as seen nearby with the successful ‘River Line’. Streetcars are also a part of Princeton’s history, because a streetcar line connected us to Trenton from 1901 – 1940 (some remains of the old trolley infrastructure are still visible today).
Challenges would remain, both technical and financial, to implementing a streetcar in Princeton. Nonetheless, it could be popular. Dinky advocates value the quick, reliable, unimpeded ride that the little train offers from Princeton station to the Amtrak line. A streetcar could offer that, and much more.
Final report of the Alexander Street Transit Study, published April 2015 (via princetonnj.gov)