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Philadelphia - March 2005

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Center City's Weekly Press


Port Authority studies new trolley lines in Philadelphia: The politics and design opportunities for bi-state rail projects.

By Scott W. Maits 

Philadelphia Map

Philadelphia side new projected routes

The bi-state Delaware River Port Authority is looking at building a major new Light Rail trolley line in Center City, both north and south along the Delaware River Waterfront in Philadelphia. This could extend the existing West Philadelphia Subway Surface Trolleys from their City Hall/Juniper Street Subway Terminus further east through Center City or it could result in a new, less central if easier to implement, stand alone trolley line connecting at a reopened Franklin Square Lindenwold Line Station to PATCO. The city study is being carried out as a supplement to plans consultants have developed for a "modified PATCO" Rapid Transit styled branch through Gloucester County, New Jersey to Glassboro or even Millville from Camden and the City. Originally plans included extending the PATCO Subway west to 30th Street Station, too.

A DRPA planning Open House at the Arch Street Meetinghouse went very well two weeks ago for the proposals. Mostly young urban and professional types who said they would use such new rail lines attended and all were excited about the environmental, social and traffic mitigating potential on both sides of the river. The meeting was attended by city officials as well as Center City District President, Paul Levy. There was praise for the general concept of building a new trolley line from Center City along Market East past projected casino sites (both on Market/Chestnut and on the southern waterfront) Independence Mall and Old City to Penn's Landing and to the growing waterfront recreational, shopping and residential areas. There are potential growth areas also along Columbus Boulevard to the Stadiums and Navy Yard in a later extension.

At last week's final public meeting for these proposals in Deptford, New Jersey, former Pennsylvania Governor Schweicker, now the President of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, made an inspiring speech on behalf of the economic importance of what he termed are vital world class rail investments being considered by this study.

The New Jersey side rail plans are generating some controversy among residents about whether it should follow the North-South (NJ route 42), the Atlantic City Expressways, or a combination of the N-S and 55 Expressways. Both of these highway oriented concepts which are being considered in New Jersey would use expressway medians with center of the highway stations (like SEPTAs fume swept at the Spring Garden Frankford El Station), and routing mostly away from towns. Unfortunately, in addition to the major economic and social benefits of these rail investments, such highway routings would certainly also facilitate more sprawl.

The original plan, and now perhaps the leading option of the three being considered in New Jersey, is to build the line though older town centers along the existing and partially intact former passenger railroad. Several very large Park and Ride lots have been adopted in the design from the highway routes to where this old rail corridor encounters expressways. This type of line center of town routing would stir New Urbanism revitalization and Transit Oriented Development along the wide right of way of what is now an existing freight railroad line via the county seat of Woodbury. This historic small city has officially and enthusiastically endorsed the line which would go through the middle of town on the active railroad on its web home page www.woodbury.nj.us . Other residents, business, towns and cities have expressed strong support of the concept of a rail line, though not all can agree where it should go because they see other mitigating problems. Further official developments from the Port Authority can be followed at www.drpa.org .

The freight railroad tracks in question were for a formally electrified commuter, multi-track, high speed steam railroad passenger route that reached the shore points. But because most train service was lost years ago, the planning is now plagued by the common start-up NIMBY objections of some residents in some suburban towns along the route. Planners have yet to work out additional grade separation locations in several of these old railroad towns which would assuage some of the critics' complaints.

Originally there were no plans to have the Port Authority build any new routes in Philadelphia. But political pressure from powerful Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Fumo, and others, concerning basic questions of spending equity for rail projects has forced the issue of waterfront rail connections and trolleys in Philadelphia.

The fact that there was an operating vintage trolley museum along Penns Landing for many years on the still existent, landscaped standard gauged railroad tracks on Columbus Boulevard helped to drive the idea of an extended and professional trolley operation there.

Then, too, the example of San Francisco which built a very similar surface streetcar branching along its waterfront from its central core using old restored Art Deco styled Philadelphia trolleys (which SEPTA claimed were "junk") to run a stylish and popular line has helped to promote the success of the idea. Trolley ridership along this San Francisco line, compared to the previous waterfront bus went up an unbelievable 1000%. Frisco's combined "Main Street" surface Market Street route combined with a waterfront running Embarcadero Line are even more popular in the city then their iconic famous cable cars now. In the last 20 years, Light Rail in other cities throughout the country has also helped develop communities, towns and waterfront districts.

But in Philadelphia the first project to be considered for the Delaware River Port Authority is to extend its PATCO subway line west to 30th Street Station or even 34th street somewhere in high tech University City. This is not only for the benefit of the city ridership, but also to allow PATCOs 10 million annual riders to connect to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. This would allow NJ rail riders the first direct access to the "Main Street" of the world's richest market, a direct connection to SEPTA's Regional Rail System, the Philadelphia Subway Surface trolley network, and access to the fast growing University City academic and high-tech job areas.

In brief, the mechanics of this system are as follows: the creation of an expensive seven block PATCO tunnel extension from Rittenhouse Square, under a strictly residential section of Locust Street to the Schuylkill River Park, then north on the ground next to the CSX tracks along the river to 30th Street would be built. Some kind of elevator an/or short moving walkway on one of the existing bridges by JFK Boulevard would connect to the station.

However, this plan would likely face fatal opposition from residents along Locust Street, especially from the coalition promoting the exciting new Schuylkill River Park trail along CSX's East Coast Mainline Freight Railroad line.

Two problems which would result from the very high cost of tunneling are the fact that the line would pretty closely follow the Market Street Subway and Subway Surface Trolley tunnels to 30th Street. This particular alignment almost certainly would not get approval for critical federal funding. Secondly, the fact that this alignment required so much tunneling while still largely missing the regional high-rise business district and half the city's most important central destinations, as well as any reasonable possibility of further extension to fast growing University City is another fatal flaw.

While other routing options for this "core access" improvement extension of PATCO to 30th Street were promoted, but not seriously studied, the desire to have the Port Authority improve connections to the Delaware River Waterfront came to the fore. This was, of course, driven by the fact that the Delaware is part of State Senator Vincent Fumo's district. Fumo sits on the Board of the DRPA which is headed by Governor Edward G. Rendell who is the current the Chairman of the cross river development organization.

The specifics and how this proposed new city Light Rail Line project is progressing and why it is being tacked on to the Gloucester County Line study in New Jersey will be described in future articles, as well as the difficulties of developing any new transit systems. We will also look at the potential cost saving alternatives, such as adopting surface transit running east of City Hall instead of the very expensive subway tunnel under Market Street.


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