Downtown merchants hesitant to jump on jitney bandwagon

Survey shows apprehension about pending loss of parking spaces.

By: Jennifer Potash
   Downtown merchants remain apprehensive about the pending loss of parking spaces during the construction of a new library and parking garage, according to a recent survey.
   And without a parking plan on the table, downtown merchants are hesitant to sign on to a proposed jitney service that could be used by downtown employees.
   Borough Merchants for Princeton, an advocacy group of about 70 downtown business owners, conducted a survey of its members.
   "Basically our survey answered a few questions and got our members thinking about the future of doing business in downtown Princeton in these next crucial years," said Michael Hopper, president of the Borough Merchants for Princeton.
   The merchants are apprehensive about a potential parking shortage when the two municipal lots on Spring and Tulane streets are closed later this year for the construction of a new municipal parking garage and related development, according to the survey. The existing Park & Shop lot on Spring Street was reduced by half to about 80 spaces in January to accommodate the construction of the new Princeton Public Library on an adjacent site.
   The bulk of the respondents want "alternatives" to the existing parking options, including private garages and permits in municipal lots. Many downtown employees do tend to feed the two-hour meters, which takes those spaces away from potential customers, the merchants said in the survey.
   As a compromise, 64 percent of respondents to the survey urged a permit system to allow downtown employees to park on residential streets. Most residential streets adjacent to the downtown have two-hour parking limits.
   About 18 percent of the respondents expressed support for the idea of a jitney service to shuttle downtown employees and customers from a remote parking lot to the central business district. But employers said more information is needed about the cost and frequency of the service. Over half the respondents did not want to pay for the service.
   Of the merchants paying for employee parking, only 8 percent agreed a jitney service would work — provided the shuttle does not cost more than existing parking fees.
   Princeton Borough Councilwoman Wendy Benchley agreed any jitney service needs to be "very cheap," in the 50 cents to $1 range, and offer short waits at the stops.
   While support may be tepid for a jitney among business owners, Ms. Benchley said full support is welcome, but not required.
   "I don’t think we need 100-percent participation," she said. "If we had only 20 percent that would make a difference in freeing up parking spaces."
   Discussions are under way regarding a joint jitney venture among Princeton Borough, Princeton Township and Princeton University, Ms. Benchley said.
   "There has been a growing call from all parts of the combination, parents of schoolchildren, senior citizens, students at Princeton University, for jitney service to get around town," Ms. Benchley said.
   Pam Hersh, director of community and state affairs at Princeton University, said the talks, which also include the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association and New Jersey Transit, are in the early stages.
   "We’re trying to figure out the best possible route as well as the costs," she said. The university currently offers a shuttle service for its students, faculty and employees, she pointed out.
   Graduate students, many of whom live in housing off Faculty Road, are pushing for an expanded and more frequent service to Princeton Shopping Center and the downtown shops, Ms. Hersh said. One problem is finding space for the parking lot for jitney riders, Ms., Hersh said. At the moment Princeton University does not have a parking lot to meet the daily needs of a remote parking area, she said.
   A jitney service is not cheap — with capital costs estimated at $2 million. But there are sources of federal and state aid available for community shuttle bus programs that could offset the cost, Ms. Benchley said.
   Other suggestions from the merchants include additional reductions of the downtown employee parking rate offered by Palmer Square in its two garages on Chambers and Hulfish streets. Or the borough might subsidize those private rates during the construction period of the municipal garage on Spring Street, which will close two existing lots.
   Another survey respondent suggested the borough waive the meter fees on weekend evenings during the construction period.
   Most of those surveyed have between one and 10 employees. Less than half of the employers surveyed pay for employee parking, which can cost $60 to $170 per month.
   Those employers that do not provide parking say employees use metered spaces, parking garages or on-street spaces.