After 10 Years, SEPTA Completes Renovations of Market Street El

SEPTA 52nd Street Station» West Philadelphia’s century-old elevated heavy rail line is brand new again.

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

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Tom Taggart

    Yonah,

    Thanks for continuing to cover my city. It’s needs all the prodding and jabbing it can get. I’ve forwarded several of your write-ups to Rina Cutler and others in the administration, and received one or two comments back form them, mostly always positive or impressed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything will happen. For good local coverage of the city, there’s a blog called septawatch, run by someone in my neighborhood of West Philly. He just profiled a group who’s been trying to get one of our commuter lines extended, or sections of the service returned (depending on how you look at it). Do you have any advice on how to start a general group whose main goal is to push Septa to expand service? Have any groups that could be used as examples?

    Thanks so much for all your thoughtful analysis,

    Tom Taggart

  • Drew

    SEPTA needs a dramatic reorganization if anything is to be done about the transportation problems around the city. The corporation is headed by a board of fifteen directors, only two of which are appointed by the city, the rest of which are members appointed by the surrounding counties (Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties) and the remaining five appointed by an out-of-touch state government in Harrisburg. You’re not going to get any improvements to city transportation when its major focus is on improving commuter rail.

    Philadelphia is one giant mess that continues to fester due to poor governance and just sheer stupidity, and for someone who has lived in Northeast Philadelphia, I’m no longer surprised by the constant disappointments.

    You have some GREAT ideas for changing our city, Yonah. I wish you were the one in charge instead of the retards we have now.

  • Tom Taggart

    Drew,

    I grew up in Northeast Philly (St. Jerome’s Parish), live in West Philly (46th and Chester), and work in the City (PWD). You are right, but you are also wrong. Philadelphia is one giant mess that continues to fester, but is festering less day by day. come out to the Clark Park Farmer’s Market every saturday to see how nice West Pgilly is; head down to the Headhouse Farmer’s Market on 2nd and South to see how vibrant that area has become. Head to Mill Creek Farm at 49th and Brown (http://www.millcreekurbanfarm.org/directions.html) to see how urban farming is changing West Powellton and Mill Creek. Oh, have you ridden along the new Schuykill River Park? Or been to the Fairmount Water Works museum?

    From time to time I miss Northeast Philly, but I definitely realize there’s a ton going on that Northeat Philadelphians never hear about.

    Tom

  • Drew

    Tom,

    I was actually referring more to the way this city is run, and how people move around this fair city of ours. But yes, I can definitely agree that there are some areas in our city that have really seen an uptick. I’ve been to the Water Works many times, and taking my bicycle out onto the Drives have been great experiences.

  • Sadly this is the only thing SEPTA has done in the last 30 years other than make the downtown connector thing for the Regional Rail. Otherwise they have spent the last thirty years cutting service to Allentown, Reading, Newtown, Quakertown, etc on the Regional Rail Lines and cutting various streetcar lines like the 23. Just restoring the many services that have been cut would be a great start. Expansion is really needed as well but seems unlikely to happen. Yonah really summed up the problems with SEPTA and how little their chances of turning around anytime soon are. It is sad because many things in Philadelphia have been turning around as of late if only the transit situation could as well. I think improving the transit would encourage more people to move back and stop the bleeding of population. I mean most cities on the East Coast have gained population or stabilized why not Philadelphia?

  • Woody

    Brandi — Very off topic, but I’m taking your name to be female. I wonder if you have a notion why so very few women ever comment here or in similar blogs?

    Oh, now I’m thinking that your name may be a gender-free play on Brandywine. Well, you can still opine about the relative absence of females. Everybody can.

    Anyway, nice observation about SEPTA retrenching while most other East Coast cities have stabilized. Gee, I think even Newark may have bottomed. Philly didn’t build another bleeding freeway to slice into the living tissue of the city, did they?

  • No, Brandi is my first name. I’m not sure why there isn’t more females to be honest. I first got into transportation stuff while in college studying environmental studies. It was seen as a big social justice meeting environmental advocacy thing at my school. A school organization I was in lobbied to have the school pay for a transit pass for everyone to encourage them to use the local mass transit. So that’s where I first got into it myself. Then I helped promote Prop 1A when I was living in California. I think I first saw this blog from a link from the CA HSR blog. But yea i’m real into alternative energy, green building, and transit.

    I’m guessing there is more guys because a lot of them are probably drawn to the more technical parts like the type of trains. I don’t really know anything about that stuff. I am just strongly interested in making our country more livable and more sustainable. I have lived all my life living an hour outside of Philadelphia. We used to have a train line done until 1981 which my dad’s one friend talked about taking but then SEPTA stopped running it in 1981 and they just tore up the tracks this past year to make another bike path. But yea Philly just seems like it could be great but makes a bunch of bad decisions. Doesn’t really seem to be improving much either. It just seems odd how most other cities have stabilized population wise and Philly has not. During the same time SEPTA has shrunk its offerings and this seems to be maybe mroe than coincidence. It is a shame Philly has two large highways cutting its downtown off from its water fronts. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put in a few more freeways in the future like you said. Yea I guess i’m not sure why there aren’t more girls. I guess maybe its a continuation of the ewwww math ewww science thing. Not sure really, what’s your theory?

  • Jim

    I know this is old news but, having just come back from West Philly (on the el) I’m wondering what the excuse is, for $740 million, for not burying that stretch of el.

    The el already runs under Market St. from Front St. to 43rd St with the last subway station at 40th St. It makes the transition from subway to elevated between 43rd and 45th with the first elevated station at 46th St.

    So it would’ve been a two mile tunnel extension from the current underground alignment to where the line leaves Market St. and travels in its own ROW out to 69th St.

    There could be good reason for the rebuild effort. I’m not sure. Were tunneling costs really that much more expensive when this project started?

  • Ha i had the exact same dilemma so i snuck over at 3AM and busted it.
    If you don’t want to do that then go above and talk to them,tell them what it does to you and the kids,it won’t hurt?

  • Carl

    Have you guys and gals seen the pictures of the old Market/Frankford Elevated lines from decades ago if not please go to http:// http://www.phillyhistory.org and let this website take you back down memory lane to a time when things were better and much simpler, less crime ,less traffic, less polution !!!!!

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