Philadelphia has some of the biggest unmet transit needs in the country, but its transit planners have frequently been unable to expand core capacity by adding fixed-guideway service to major routes. SEPTA, bogged down in the maintenance and repair of its decades-old subways and subway-surface light rail lines, has been unable to find the funds or political will to build new projects; its last attempt, the Roosevelt Boulevard subway extension, went down in flames.
But the Delaware River Port Authority, which runs the PATCO Speedline between Philadelphia and New Jersey, has big ambitions for the city and for the last year and a half has been contemplating making a major investment in a new light rail line along the Delaware River. It would act as a stimulus for increased development along the already booming waterfront, as well as extend the reach of vibrant Center City. DRPA is also planning to build a new DMU rail line between Camden and Glassboro. The agency’s involvement indicates a political recognition that SEPTA’s management simply isn’t working well enough for SEPTA to engage in any big new projects at this time.
Yesterday’s announcement by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Senator Arlen Spector (D-PA) that a locally preferred alternative has been selected for the waterfront route shows that efforts for a new line are not simply a fantasy on the part of the agency; DRPA really wants to make this project happen.
In August, DRPA revealed preliminary alternatives for the route, all of which would extend from the Sugarhouse Casino to Pier 70 along the waterfront, but which offered differing connections into Center City Philadelphia. Suggested links could run down Market Street to City Hall, stop at Franklin Square (where a new PATCO station in planned), or follow a circuitous route to 8th Street. An initial analysis done by the agency showed that the City Hall route, illustrated above, would have the highest ridership, with 12,000-15,000 daily riders, compared to 7,000-10,000 for the other two alignments. On the other hand, it would be the most expensive, costing up to $500 million total, resulting in annualized capital costs of $36 million, compared to $30-34 million for the other two. The project could be completed in six years.
Mr. Nutter’s support for the Market Street route makes a lot of sense — it is the city’s main street, and the alignment leaves open the possibility of connecting the new service to the subway-surface light rail lines that extend from City Hall into West Philadelphia. The other two routes being considered would have provided poor connections for existing transit users. So it’s a good choice, and if Philadelphia wants to ramp up development along the Delaware River, the waterfront line has excellent potential. It should be noted, however, that many of the existing projects along the river lack the kind of people-scaled features that allow transit to work best. Philadelphia will have to embark on a significant reform of the way development occurs along the river if it wants to make this project fully functional.
The line would run mostly in the street, though it would have its own lanes, putting it somewhere between a streetcar and light rail in terms of operations. DRPA has suggested that it could interface directly with the Girard Avenue Line, opening up the possibility of running trains from West Philadelphia to the Delaware Waterfront via Girard. This is an exciting opportunity considering that the restored trolley line already serves 12,000 riders a day, a number that could expand significantly if development continues apace along the corridor. This, however, would require the new waterfront line to use the trolley wire that powers Girard Avenue trolleys — an antique but cheaper technology to implement.
The somewhat odd-ball configuration of the proposed line, illustrated in a T-shape with no indication of exact service possibilities, could prove to be a problem. Would trains run from north and south, meet at 2nd Street, and then extend downtown? Or would there be some through service?
One problem is that DRPA, hindered by low ridership estimates, is only planning trains every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes at night — making it difficult to envision more than one route. That said, if ridership increased, Philadelphia could look to the Hudson-Bergen light rail line in northern New Jersey as a model. There, the 40,000 daily riders are able to choose from three routes; one route runs north-south, bypassing Hoboken; the other two run from the termini to Hoboken but do not provide through-service. Two routes overlap in every section, and each route runs every 10 to 20 minutes at all times. This ensures that customers can get on a train every five to ten minutes and get to any specific destination every 10 to 20 minutes. In Philadelphia, there could similarly be three lines, two running from the termini to City Hall and one running from Pier 70 to Sugarhouse Casino without heading downtown.
If DRPA is incapable increasing service frequencies, however, this three-route operation is not an option, since it would require more trains and drivers: a two-route service could be cheaper. One option is simply not providing through service at all and running trains from the two termini to City Hall; a customer wanting to ride north-south along the waterfront would have to transfer in the middle.
An alternative option could have some trains running along the waterfront and other running from City Hall to the Waterfront; customers would have to transfer at 2nd Street. This could be done more cheaply if some Girard Avenue trains simply continued south along the waterfront and if some subway-surface vehicles continued to the waterfront along Market — the second possibility, of course, would require an expensive underground connection downtown that no one appears to be ready to pay for at this time.
None of these options are ideal, but this is the problem with a T-shaped route. Yet DRPA’s transit planners seem to have approached this problem from the perspective of serving destinations, rather than in the interest of getting customers between destinations, which, after all, is what transportation does.
Philadelphia’s estimates for cost and ridership make it difficult to envision the city getting New Starts financing at this time. Indeed, there are plenty of other corridors in the city that would probably make for a better, more cost-effective investment. Yet, SEPTA’s mismanagement and the leadership of the DRPA — clearly focused on the river — has made the waterfront line the priority.
Cost limitations, even if the project manages to secure a federal earmark, will make the subway under Market Street still being investigated by DRPA in preliminary engineering now being pursued simply a non-starter; it would increase costs exponentially and make the project infeasible. The extension from Pier 70 south to the Navy Yard and stadium complex envisioned by the agency for Phase 2 would be a waste of money considering the complete lack of walkable development south of Pier 70 and the need for other areas of the city to better transit first.
Even so, Mr. Specter’s support for the first phase of this project and the administration’s avid interest in promoting development-spurring streetcar proposals indicates that there may be a future for this line. But the waterfront line won’t reach its full potential until it is adequately linked to other services, and until new buildings along the river are appropriately scaled for pedestrian movement.
Update: For those interested, reader Jim Resta has put together a nice map of his own idea for potential Philadelphia streetcar lines. More bang for the buck, he argues.
Image above: Philadelphia Proposed Waterfront Transit Map, from DRPA