Light Rail Philadelphia

Philadelphia Selects Waterfront Transit Alignment

Philadelphia Waterfront Transit Map» New link proposed between City Hall and the waterfront — but how will trains traverse the T-shaped corridor?

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

22 replies on “Philadelphia Selects Waterfront Transit Alignment”

I know I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: Market Street between Penn’s Landing and City Hall is the single most transit rich area of the city. There is already a host of existing service running down that corridor. Considering the extensive transit needs elsewhere in Philadelphia, this project is a total waste and should be dropped. It’s even more heart-breaking to read that they’re going to waste money on trains that will only run every 15 to 30 minutes. We should be ramping up frequencies of existing services, not building duplicate services that will be sparsely used. This isn’t to say I’m not a believer in the power of transit to spur development, but the primary reason Philly’s waterfront hasn’t made the post-industrial transition is not a lack of transit service.

Actually, it would be incredibly simple to just run it as a single line which traverses the entire route, changing designation at the inland loop to let you know whether it was bound for the eastern or western terminus, much like the 4/6 ringen line here in Oslo. If you wanted through service along the waterfront, you could change at second street; the only issue with that would be whether or not there were enough streetcars running at off-peak times to make that a viable option.

Also, I fail at paragraph.

this seems like a pretty sad statement about transit in Philadelphia. SEPTA is really so unable to get its act together that the city (+feds +state) is/are contemplating throwing millions at a useless vanity project? sad.

This project does not seem very useful. Coming from the west, you’re much better off taking the subway all the way to 2nd and then getting on this streetcar either north or south. Right now there really is nothing much of interest on Delaware Ave, so there’s even less point to this.

I also can’t imagine there would be a free transfer. Living in West Philly, there is really no situation I can imagine where taking this streetcar would be useful to me.

Living in West Philly (as we do) this would be useful for:
Going to festival peir.
Going to the rock climbing gym
Going to Yard’s Brewery
Going tp the new Park at Peir 11
Getting close to Penn Treaty Park
Going to the Casino
Going to Walmart/Best Buy/Home Depot
Going to Dave and Busters
Going to future parks and trails along thr Delaware
And so on.

Also, tourists love light rail, as it’s a means for them to take transit while being able to see the city. I can easily see someone taking this between City Hall and 5th street to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

J. D. – I agree the subway surface green lines hsould be extended, but as the article states, that would probably be prohibitively expensive and that’s why no one is suggesting it.

Tacony Palmyra – I agree money should be sent elsewhere, but DRPA isn’t going to do that. They are only going to spend money on services that tie into their existing services. They aren’t going to fund the BSL expansion, Rooselvelt Blvd Line, Schuylkill Valley Metro, and so on. They’re only going to fund lines that tie into Patco and stay close to the waterfront.

What does everyone think?

From the look of the map, as an outsider, How hard would it be to keep costs down and ensure a better subway extension of the existing Subway-Surface, if this was built first as an extension of the Girard Trolley line and then at the midpoint where it can tie into the subway a portal can be built in the future.


While everything you mentioned would be accessible by this new line, the majority of it is already very close to a stop on the El. I can’t imagine getting off the el at city hall, paying again, and getting on this trolley. Maybe I’m missing something, but with the exception of a few spots in south philly that are not likely to be easy to get to from this as well(think of the huge parking lots) most spots are already accessible by a faster train.

So a ‘safe and friendly’ ‘modern light rail’ line for tourists unwilling to use the existing subway between City Hall and Second Street? Huge waste. Clearly a better plan would have a Girard extension simply have a decently designed transfer station at Second. And IF DRPA insists on a ‘stand alone’ system, will they fail to make it physically compatible with the SEPTA (Philadelphia wide guage) trackage? I

the whole thing is stupid. the Market st idea is better than the Franklin Sq idea but for half a billion dollars I’d rather see PATCO under the Parkway.

I think DRPA should either decide to make this either

1) A Tourist/Entertainment Line in which case it should go past city hall all the way up to the art museum to draw as many leisure users as possible. Then it will hit every daytime main tourist attraction and a lot of the night time ones along the waterfront.

2) A More Useful Line in which case it should either

A) Just run along the waterfront as an extension of the Girard Street and have a connection to the existing 2nd Street & Market Street stop on the Market Street Line to reduce costs.

B) Go underground at some point on its way down Market Street to connect to the Subway-Surface Lines and allow through routing of existing lines all the way to the waterfront. I have no clue if this is actually possible though.

C) Run down a different street then Market through the city to increase transit options for other less loved corridors.

Overall, though I have to say if DRPA can get anything new done even if it isn’t perfect it’ll be a heck of a lot better than what SEPTA has done in the last 30 years.

Adding a streetcar along Market Street just duplicates service. Just running the streetcar along the Waterfront would be the better idea, with a connection at 2nd Street to the MFSE. The Franklin Square loop looked like a better option, because it allows for more potential for service.

I hope DRPA and SEPTA have some future thinking with this, with the potential of extending it westward to the Ben Franklin Parkway, either along it or under it in the City Branch Tunnel. Doing so will connect another transit strapped area, and actually make the streetcar go somewhere other than the casinos.

This line is a total waste of money, but like much (most?) of the capital projects in this region, it’s primarily a political creation. In this case, DRPA is proposing something for the Pennsylvania side of the river because New Jersey is getting a new train line (which itself is a poor project that shouldn’t be funded in its current form).

Obviously, DRPA isn’t going spend its money on non-river projects, however worthy they might be (extending the BSL to the Navy Yard or under Ogontz Ave, extending the MFL to Roosevelt Blvd, the #100 spur to Valley Forge) but it could use that money to pay down its insanely high debt load. And remember, its debt is so high because its revenue is constantly raided by politicians in both states to pay for make-work projects of little value, much like this one.

truncating the line at 2nd and franklin square woudl make it a two seat ride for tourists and a three seat ride for RRD riders.

I think DRPA had this line in mind from the get-go. They’ve been talking about how – “all the major tourist destinations in the region all fall within a few blocks of a straight line from the Tweeter Center to the Art Museum” – for at least the last 7 years. They get to connect to the Speedline at 8th & Market, to their aerial “stonehenge on the Delaware” tram and they leave open the option for service down the Parkway.

What’s completely idiotic about all of this is, have none of these people seen the rush hour bus traffic on westbound Market St? It will take 20 minutes for these trolleys to go the 15 blocks from the river to City Hall.

As I’ve said in many other forums, public and private, build the waterfront alignment as they’ve shown but use Spring Garden St. to connect to the subway, the el, the Art Museum, and take it over the bridge into University City. Take it all the way down 40th St. to the trolley portal. Use the ALREADY EXISTING tracks and working trolley wire on 11th/12th Streets between Spring Garden and Bainbridge as a spur for the PATCO connection.

Chris et alia,

I agree with you, and hope they can extend this or another trolley service along the City Branch, or some other tunnel, to the Art Museum the Barnes, and maybe even Girard Avenue in that direction.

And yes, this will duplicate service for 6-7 Stops of the El, but I’m okay with that duplication for what I consider a huge improvement that a line along Delaware Avenue Brings. NewBoldPhilly, I think you have a great idea in takeing over Spring Garden street, and running a tram, light rail line, whatever you call it, but I wouldn’t take over the whole street (and that would never happen) but just two dedicated lanes in the middle, with less parking and a protected bike lane each way. The route they are proposing wouldn’t be as idiotic as the current bus lines, since it would have a more dedicated lane of travel.

All of you know about Septwatch’s blog, right? Look it up if not.

My biggest gripe is it’s south philly routing. rather than eventually meandering to the navy yard via unpopulated, industrial zones it should be running via a populated portion of lower south philly, perhaps as far as broad and oregon via moymensing. On the north side it simply goes nowhere. They could probably eliminate the entire northern portion and still hae the same riders with more frequent service. On the flip side, if you’re going to built it, it should run further. I just can’t see this portion generating any substantial ridership and will become an operating liability.

I like the plans for the tram line ,I like to see more in the northeast part of philadelphia ,we need more lightrail in the northeast!Most cityies are going back to lightrails ,its a smart way to move people,buses seem to be replaces every few years ,light rails last much longer them buses,makes sence right? try it septa, comeone lets get moving now!
the 15 line is nice,I use it ,and love it ,thanks for bringing the trolly 15 back, I miss the 50,53,56,23,47.all are now buslines,think of the fule we can save, by putting trollyes back! by putting them back causes jobs,we need to go to lightrail now! thanks ,but who cares ? I do !dean houck

This idea is awesome and It was a shame The Penn’s Landing Trolley went by the wayside at least the equipment ended up in another museum This is a very awesome idea I think SEPTA may not be happy campers on this footnote but if they don’t like it ha ha thats toughSometimes I think other Transit agences other than SEPTA seem to have thier act together

SEPTA Could have bought more “K” Cars for the other Streetcar lines in the city They(SEPTA) Its entirely too much like rigth Maybe They’ll buy Toronto’s Light rial cars once they get thier replacement fleet they seem to be in decent shape

While I like the idea of running the trolleys parallel to the Market Street Subway all the way to Delaware Avenue – in part to relieve some of the transfer-generated congestion under City Hall – Spring Garden Street – as suggested by newboldphilly – sounds like a good alternative…Maybe change the entire Route 43 back to trolleys…
Also – like Dean houck – I miss the Routes 6, 23, 47, 50, 53, 56, and 60 trolleys…I’ve ridden all of them before SEPTA “bustituted” them…Also, I remember the old Route 46 double-end trolleys on 60th and 58th Streets…A block from where I grew up…Which my dad and I rode when I was knee-high to a grasshopper…
Maybe change several other former trolley lines back – in addition to the above, Routes 3, 12, 17, 26 (would require widening part of Oxford Avenue), 33, 48, 54, and the current Route 52 – if the funds could be found for them…It would not be cheap – especially for a cash-strapped agency like SEPTA – but trolleys do last longer than buses and powering them would not be subject to the whims of the oil companies and OPEC….
Also, extend the Broad Street Subway up the Roosevelt Boulevard all the way to Southampton Street…They were supposed to have done that during the Sixties… With stops at Fifth Street, Rising Sun Avenue, Adams Avenue (which is already partially built), Oxford Avenue, Harbison Avenue, Cottman Avenue, Rhawn Street/Holme Avenue, Welsh Road/Grant Avenue, Red Lion Road, Comly Road (just short of the junction with Woodhaven Road), Southampton Road, and possibly out of the city to State Road….Yes, we are talking BIG bucks here, but if you have driven on The Boulevard, you know it can be a monumental headache…Even with two sets of three lanes in each direction…It would have been a lot less expensive in the Sixties…Oh, well…..

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