Over the past ten years, Philadelphia’s Market Street has been a complete mess between 46th and 69th Streets, where the ancient elevated transit line and its associated stations have been completely replaced with a new structure. Last week, after $740 million in work, the full corridor reopened to service with six new stations along two miles of renovated track.
The project, undertaken on the Market Street end of the Market-Frankford Elevated by Philadelphia’s SEPTA transit agency, was essential to ensure a state of good repair. It is complete six years after work finished on a $500 million refurbishment of the Frankford side of the corridor, which was merged with the Market Street route in 1922. The unified line, which now benefits from automatic train control and 220 new train cars, has the city’s highest ridership, with 170,000 daily users. Federal fixed guideway modernization funds, which provide SEPTA with about $100 million in annual aid, covered 80% of the program’s costs.
The Market Street El opened in 1907, with service along West Philadelphia’s most important thoroughfare. It made a significant mark on the city’s development: between 1900 and 1920, half of all housing units built in Philadelphia were within six blocks of one of the line’s stations. A ride down Market Street today, however, presents a dreary image that makes those boom times difficult to imagine. East of 40th Street, the University of Pennsylvania has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in remaking its surroundings into a vibrant community. But once the El emerges from its tunnel at 46th Street and continues west into the city, the environment is decidedly less friendly.
The sections of West Philadelphia served by the renovated line are impoverished, suffer from high vacancy rates and are spotted by bombed-out buildings. Though the renovation project replaced its support structure, Market Street itself remains dominated by the elevated line. Sidewalks and streets are in complete disrepair. The few businesses that stick around have suffered from ten years of noisy, intrusive construction work.
Fortunately, the City of Philadelphia will spend $10 million in streetscaping in 2010 and 2011. The project, which could not begin until SEPTA was finished with its work, will include new trees, sidewalks, and bus bulb-outs. Though neither the renovation of the El nor the street improvements will likely lead to massive new investment in the community, once they are completed, Market Street will be a better place than before to walk along and catch the train.
Though not architectural marvels, the new stations are handsome additions to the neighborhood. Each of the stops is virtually identical, which is a disappointment for those interested in bringing exciting architecture to Philadelphia, but SEPTA is a conservative organization, choosing to focus on quality, long-term investments rather than anything adventurous.
Yet Philadelphia is desperately in need of something audacious, and despite its necessity, the renovation of the El is not that. The city has seen extensive redevelopment downtown, but overall it has lost more than a quarter of its inhabitants since 1960, and unlike many of the country’s other major cities, Philadelphia continues to lose population, even between 2007 and 2008, according to the U.S. Census. New York City has gained 600,000 people since 1960.
Now that it has completed its major renovation work, SEPTA must think more seriously about improving transit in the city by building new capacity in the form of rapid transit extensions and new light rail projects. These investments, as well as serious incentives to invest in quality transit-oriented development, could lead to significant quality-of-life improvements for inhabitants of impoverished areas throughout the city. Currently, the only transit project with funds behind it is a new DMU commuter line between the suburban towns of Camden and Glassboro — being sponsored by the State of New Jersey.
Regrettably, the city itself is in no shape to invest: it recently came within days of having to shutdown its library system and fire 3,000 employees before the state government allowed it to increase sales taxes at the last minute. These fiscal crises prevent local leaders from thinking in the long-term and as a result few ever do. To the city’s great loss, renovations of existing lines are probably the best Philadelphia will get for the next few decades.
Image above: 52nd Street Station, from SEPTA