Yesterday, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) announced that it had completed its two year-long alternatives analysis study for improving transit between Center City Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and that it was ready to advance a diesel multiple unit (DMU) light rail line between downtown Camden and Glassboro as the first stage of proposed improvements.
DRPA, which operates the PATCO rapid transit service between Philadelphia and Lindenwold, recommended the cheaper DMU over an extension of the more expensive (and faster) PATCO line, which requires entirely separated right-of-way because its trains are powered by third rail. Additional improvements, including a bus rapid transit line along routes 42 and 55 and improvements to the New Jersey Transit Atlantic City line, were also advanced, though DRPA has prioritized the DMU project.
Southern New Jersey — though just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia — currently suffers from a lack of rapid transit offerings, especially when compared to northern areas of the state, which have a number of NJ Transit commuter lines heading into New York City as well as PATH rapid transit and the Hudson-Bergen riverfront light rail. DRPA’s study was intended to point to transit options that would improve the relative quality of public transportation in these areas.
Like the River Line, which runs between Camden and Trenton, the proposed 20-mile DMU line will operate on improved but existing railroad right-of-way and slow to city speed limits in town centers. A PATCO expansion along the same corridor would have required sealed grade crossings and significantly sped up operations as well as provided direct access into Center City Philadelphia through the existing tunnels, but it would have cost more than a $1 billion more to build, money New Jersey simply doesn’t have; the new ARC commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River, at $9 billion, is consuming the majority of the state’s transit expansion budget at the moment.
On the other hand, the lesser investment needed for the DMU proposal, at $1.3 billion, is more manageable. The state has already committed $500 million for the first phase of the project, which would extend light rail 8 miles to Cooper Street in Woodbury, though additional financing would be necessary to fund the entire route to Glassboro. DRPA is likely to apply for and win Federal Transit Administration New Starts money for this line, since at a projected 27,000 daily riders, the line would meet the cost-effectiveness ratings required for dollars from Washington. Passenger service could begin by 2014; it would be operated by either DRPA or NJ Transit.
The secondary elements of the plan, priced at an estimated $700 million, would start bus rapid transit along two major roadways to the east of the DMU line and improve the Atlantic City commuter rail line line with a connection to Atlantic City’s airport and the construction of a new station in Woodcrest.
It’s undoubtedly good news for these Philadelphia suburbs that they’ll receive more transit, thanks to a commitment from the transit-friendly New Jersey government. The choice of DMU service, however, has a number of drawbacks. The primary problem is that commuters won’t be getting direct access to Philadelphia, their primary destination. Instead, they’ll have to transfer at the Walter Reed Transportation Center to PATCO trains. Riders on the proposed bus rapid transit lines would get direct service to Center City.
Second, because DMUs operate in right-of-way that is frequently crossed by cars, they’re slower than a potential PATCO extension would be. It’s not as slow as you might think, though: the trip on the River Line from downtown Camden to Trenton takes an hour to complete, while reserved right-of-way SEPTA R7 service from downtown Philadelphia to Trenton takes almost as long.
If PATCO technology is indeed too expensive, I do think that it makes a lot of sense to make this line an extension of the same-technology River Line and have it operated by NJ Transit. Doing so would allow customers not only to commute to Camden, but also to get from, say, Glassboro to Riverton or even Trenton without changing trains. NJ Transit runs a tight ship and would be good service provider.
Image above: Proposed Southern New Jersey transit improvements, from DRPA