Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

July 7, 2002:

Could Princeton absorb its commuter workforce?

Those of us who make the daily commute from Princeton to New York City and back, riding those oh-so-familiar 60 miles of rail through central New Jersey, may occasionally complain about the service on New Jersey Transit. Well, okay, ceaselessly complain about the service . . . and the overcrowding . . . and the expense and the . . .

Still, that grumbling litany aside, it must be admitted that - whatever the cost to pocketbook or basic human dignity - those trains get us to our jobs and home again with utter, stultifying reliability. Now, however, comes the news that financially foundering Amtrak is threatening to shut down service if it does not receive a requested $200-million bailout. Because Amtrak owns Pennsylvania Station and the tracks of the Northeast Corridor (and, who knows, may be contemplating pulling those tracks up to sell as scrap), that move would shut down all rail transit between Princeton and New York, leaving thousands of commuters scrambling for alternative transportation.

Sure, there are buses and cars, and we would all muddle through somehow, but the looming crisis struck me as something of a wake-up call for those of us "Princetonians" who earn our keep (and spend the vast majority of our time) far from Nassau Hall. "What would you do for a living," I asked my friend and fellow-commuter Petey Pinkston, "if you had to work in town?" "In Princeton?" said Petey, with a tone of puzzlement, as if I'd asked about his employment prospects in Camelot. A creative director for a national advertising agency, he has been commuting by rail five days a week for the past six years. "Probably teach at the university, astrophyics most likely." He shrugged, unfolding his copy of USA Today. "Either that or drive that little parking meter scooter around." I began to try to imagine what Princeton would be like if everyone who lived here actually had to work here. Presumably that's what it was like back in the town's earliest years. Colonial Princetonians, after all, weren't taking the 7:09 coach into Neue Amsterdam to work at Ye Olde Ad Agency. How would the town absorb its legions of stranded workers? Petey's immediate thought was of the university, which makes sense, as it is already the largest employer in the Borough. Then again, full professorships aren't exactly going begging. Clearly, Princeton would immediately need to found a law school and a business school to accommodate all the lawyers and brokers who currently work in the city and live (in large, expensive houses) in town. Of course, there would only be so many faculty spots. Perhaps a number of those lawyers and brokers could be put to work building those schools (leading to entrepreneurial opportunities in town for purveyors of blue jeans and boots, as the new crews replaced pinstripes and wingtips).

Why stop there? The university is always building something. How about a cathedral? A vast number of former commuters (and their descendents) could be gainfully employed raising flying buttresses and carving gargoyles.

And what about another lake? Carnegie gets so crowded on a nice spring day. Scores of erstwhile city workers could swap their briefcases for shovels and collect a regular paycheck for years. Meanwhile, in a return to a more gracious era, perhaps the school could reinstitute waiter service in the dining halls. Surely, an early morning spent busing students' trays at Maddy would be a welcome change from the hassle of trying to get a seat at the Junction. Of course, the burden shouldn't fall entirely on the university. Faced with an army of residents looking for work, the town would have to do its part as well. I see a vast improvement in street-sweeping services, as well as a welcome increase in the availability of hotdogs on the sidewalks of the Borough. Beyond those quality-of-life improvements, however, the ultimate solution to the crisis is obvious: Casinos. With a little training, all those cut-off financial industry types could go from wheeling and dealingon Wall Street to just plain dealing on Nassau Street. There's no reason this can't be a win-win situation for everybody. Hey, it's a safer bet than giving $200 million to Amtrak.

You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" paw@princeton.edu