The argument for Philadelphia from cost control

A lot of local political bigshots came out to the Navy Yard last Monday to announce full funding for another study of the case for extending subway service to the South Philadelphia office park.  It may not be the most pressing transit need in the region, but it does have good potential.  Perhaps more important: if Philadelphia can build subway tunnel at a tenth of the cost of New York, then that creates a strong political argument to shift federal funding here, to build and strengthen our network.

BSL Navy Yard Extension Map
Proposed routing of the BSL extension from the Navy Yard Master Plan

Discussions of the politics of federal transit funding are always fraught.  I have argued in the past that our fundamental political position with respect to the Federal Government (and the State Government, for that matter) is so weak, that we should not rely on it, and instead look to more self-reliant methods to support our rebuilding efforts.  But there is a moment right now, where federal transportation funding is in limbo, and the urgent transit megaprojects seeking federal funding are all coming from the New York City metropolitan area, a national disgrace of project cost control.  Philadelphia is in a fairly rare place in being able to justify several moderately-expensive ($10^7 to $10^9) projects with very good ROI and ridership numbers, while having a solid foundation in maintenance and state of good repair, and lack of hostility from Governor Wolf, as compared to his transit-skeptic counterparts in Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.

In contrast, the eyes of the nation (and Congress) are on New York City, which has a majority of transit riders nationwide, and has several expensive ($10^9-$10^10) megaprojects in construction, or in the planning pipeline.  However, New York City is a dumpster fire of project management and cost control.  Scope creep alone accounts for billions of dollars of waste, as station terminals are expanded in the hopes that the fractured, balkanized pieces of New York’s transit agencies might never have to share assets with each other.  Projects are delayed years and overrun their budgets by billions, and yet neither the contractors, nor the agencies, nor the politicians are ever held to account for it.  The three most expensive rail tunnels in human history, by cost per kilometer, are all in New York: the 7 Line Extension ($1.3B/km), the Second Avenue Subway ($1.7B/km), and LIRR East Side Access ($4B/km); the most expensive outside of New York is London’s Crossrail 1 at $1.0B/km.  The two most expensive rail stations in the world are a few blocks from each other in Lower Manhattan: the Fulton Street Transit Center ($1.4B), and Santiago Calatrava’s White Stegosaurus, the World Trade Center PATH Terminal ($4B).  The next big project is the Gateway Tunnels under the Hudson River into Penn Station, whose estimated $20 billion price tag, proposed to be split 50-25-25 between the Feds, New Jersey, and New York, dwarfs the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts budget, which runs at about $2 billion per year.  And in tacit recognition that there is no longer any authority trusted to lead the construction efforts, an entirely new Gateway Development Corporation is proposed to fill that role, an astonishing rebuke to the very existence of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

If Philadelphia can develop a reputation for delivering transit infrastructure projects at rates that are affordable, and not an international disgrace, we can attract the attention of federal funding in a way that we have not since Frank Rizzo secured funding for the Center City Commuter Connection from the Ford Administration’s UMTA (and that our present Congressional delegation has notably failed to replicate).  This will take co-operation and careful management from SEPTA, the City, PIDC, the construction trades, contractors, and luck (it’s possible that terrible soil conditions at the Navy Yard will drive up costs in a legitimate and unavoidable way).  Liberty Property Trust should probably be hit up for some of the marginal cash they will make from building more midrise offices and hotels at the Navy Yard instead of parking lots; development-oriented transit should always have a funding component from the private entities it enriches, as happened at SEPTA’s new station at Lansdale 9th Street with Stoltz Real Estate Partners.

If this strategy works, all those worthy local projects that are languishing for lack of funding, from the City Branch to the West Chester Restoration to the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, will have a fighting chance at becoming reality.  And that is something that can pay dividends across the city and throughout the region.  I don’t think I’m alone in making this calculation; why else would IBEW 98 head John Dougherty be the primary political champion of the Navy Yard subway extension?  But one political leader and one union is only a start; the commitment to keeping costs down has to come from everyone at all levels of the project.  And it starts with an alert and informed public, keeping an eye on the project as it proceeds, and committed to expediting its completion.

The Wandering Bus

It’s coming up on Halloween.  The air is finally getting colder, the days are shorter, and a mix of fallen leaves and election flyers start clogging the storm drains.  As we stand on the point of transition into the dark half of the year, a ghost story — or a fairy tale, depending on your point of view —  seems an appropriate way to mark the season.

Continue reading The Wandering Bus

Reminders for today, Pope Friday

  • SEPTA Regional Rail is on a Saturday Schedule, except for Wilmington/Newark and Cynwyd which are on special schedules.
  • Suburban Station is closed until 4 AM Monday.
  • 5th St/Independence, 15th St, and City Hall stations are closed until 5 AM Monday.
  • City transit is running, but lots of buses are being detoured around the secure vehicle perimeter around the Parkway and City Hall.  Dimensions of secure areas can be found on Lauren Ancona’s Philly Pope Map.
  • Tokens and regular passes are still good on subways and buses, and will remain good through the duration.  Special passes are only for Regional Rail, suburban trolleys/NHSL, and PATCO, Saturday and Sunday only.
  • Other agencies are adjusting schedules today.
  • The Traffic Box around Center City goes up at 6 PM this evening.  Boundaries are South Street river-to-river, Spring Garden Street, Ridge Ave, and Girard Ave.
  • The secure vehicle perimeter around Independence Hall goes up at 10 PM.  More detours.
  • The Traffic Box in University City goes up at 10 PM.  Boundaries are Powelton Ave, 38th St, and University Ave.
  • Highways (incl. I-76, I-676, and the Ben Franklin Bridge) start closing at 10 PM.

And last but not least:

  • The streets are safe and the weather is beautiful.  Go walking outside!


Pricing parking is not regressive

People who object to putting a fair price on parking often claim that it would be a regressive tax falling primarily on the poor and working class.  That assertion is not supported by the arithmetic.

Based on an unscientific survey of Philadelphia’s poor and working class, conducted by watching Twitter keyword searches for the last 6-12 months, the poor and working class largely don’t drive. They *want* to drive, and largely do as soon as they have the money, but they have to get over that hurdle *first*.  And it’s a very, very large hurdle.

Total cost of ownership of a car (purchase, insurance, fuel, licensing and registration, maintenance) *starts* at $5,500/year for an ultra-economy city car like the Nissan Versa or the Chevy Spark, and rises to $6,000/year for the reliably cheap Toyota Corolla. The numbers go *way* higher than that.  For context: depending on your neighborhood, you can spend less than $5,500/year on rent in this city.  A year’s worth of Transpasses will set you back $1,092.

When Mayor Richardson Dilworth first proposed an annual parking permit in 1961, he priced it at $40/year, or $320/year in 2015 dollars. (He literally had rocks thrown at him for his trouble.) $320/year is a nudge for people who don’t really need a car but have one by inertia. If you NEED a car for your job, or to access your job, that car is bringing you more than $6,320 in value per year, never mind more than $320. And that $320 isn’t just a taking, it gets you something very valuable in return: a shit-tonne of *time* spent not circling blocks looking for parking. Again, far more valuable than $320/year for anyone who has the money to own a car in the first place.

So why do so many poor people want to drive in Philadelphia, if it’s so expensive? They want to drive because putting up with SEPTA being slow and unreliable is especially psychologically punishing if SEPTA is a choice you are compelled to make.

We have it in our power to make SEPTA fast and reliable, and in a very short amount of time, for a reasonable budget, through public policy. We know how, it’s a question of funding and will.  It will take building bus lanes and curb extensions. It will take running core route trains, buses, and trolleys often enough that people can always just walk up to a stop or station and be sure that they won’t be waiting long.  It will take all-door boarding on transit vehicles.  It will take further steps beyond those that I can list here.

Not all of that will be easy, and some of it won’t come cheap. But the budget required to permanently eradicate poverty in Philadelphia is several orders of magnitude higher than that, and that’s the alternative on offer.

Housekeeping notes: New WP theme. This one is allegedly easier to read and navigate on touchscreen devices.  This post originated as comments elsewhere and have been edited and expanded.

That This House Has No Confidence In the Leadership of the World Meeting of Families

I keep wanting to write further about the endless logistical and communications bungling that is the hallmark of the leadup to the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.  Every time I make the attempt, some new gross error renders me unable to write in polite terms about people who, for all that they have thoroughly earned the derision of the people of this city, are clearly trying their best, however inadequate their best may be.

USSS Pope Map
Official Pope map released by the Secret Service on September 2nd, and immediately declared inaccurate by the WMOF

At this point, simply enumerating the blunders would send any article or blog post into novella length. I expect that, in the fullness of time, books will be written by management and leadership experts, showcasing the planning and execution of the communications strategy as shining exemplars of What Not To Do.  However, as things stand now, thousands of hotel rooms remain unbooked, tens of thousands of railroad tickets remain unsold, and massive uncertainty exists as to where the general public will actually be permitted when His Holiness comes to the Parkway.  The Secret Service refuses to release information so that visitors and residents alike may plan, and when they do, the WMOF hastily calls press conferences to say that the information is incorrect or incomplete.  Mayor Michael Nutter has held multiple press conferences to angrily denounce rumors as fabricated and false, only to be contradicted days later when the rumors are substantially confirmed by the WMOF.  Philadelphia looks like a bunch of idiots, and had we had any role in choosing this leadership, apart from the elected officials who seem to be kept as much in the dark as the public is (not that that absolves them), we would deserve it.

I don’t know if the situation can or will be salvaged before the arrival of Pope Francis on September 26th.  At the very least, any further planning has to happen in a way that doesn’t look and sound like frantic improvisation by people in way over their heads.

I do know that responsibility for botched management rises to the very top.  With that in mind, this blog calls for the immediate resignations of WMOF Executive Director Donna Crilley Farrell, US Secret Service Special Agent in Charge David Beach,  and His Excellency Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia.  Throwing their deputies into the hot seat with fewer than 20 days left until the Pope’s arrival is as cruel to them as it is inefficient, but the simple fact is that they probably can’t do any worse.  And if there is any institution on the planet that understand that symbols matter, it’s the Roman Catholic Church.

Dear New Yorkers

If Governor Andrew Cuomo’s continued blithering idiocy manages to stall Amtrak’s Gateway tunnels until after one or both of the Hudson River Tunnels fails,

and if Mayor Bill De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton succeed in wiping out the Times Square pedestrian plazas, one of America’s most successful urban street interventions, over a handful (sorry) of boob-related incidents,

please, please, please, do not all move to Philadelphia at once.  There are eight million of you, and as we are in the midst of proving, we have problems when more than a half million people or so show up at any one time.  (We will totally take that first half million, though.)  Also, you seem to have a penchant for electing dumb fuckups who ruin everything, and that is about the last thing we need to do.


More in sympathy than in gloating,


The Secret Service Is Not a Transportation Agency

Since SEPTA’s service plan for the Papal Visit came out, transportation experts and casual riders alike have been picking apart what seem to be obvious flaws. As suggestions for improvement are met with uncharacteristic silence from 1234 Market Street, the picture has become much clearer: it’s not SEPTA’s transportation plan, it’s the transit component of a security plan, and in that light, of course it makes no goddamned sense as a transportation plan.

Most reporting on transportation for the Papal Mass on the Parkway has focused on a simple syllogism: 1) 1,500,000 people each turned out for the Phillies parade in 2008 and Live 8 in 2005. Both times, every mode of transportation in the area melted down from demand well over capacity. 2) 2,000,000-2,500,000 visitors are expected to come see His Holiness. 3) Every mode of transportation is going to melt down again.

But the SEPTA preliminary service plan only partially optimizes itself for capacity. The restriction of Regional Rail to only a couple dozen stations makes some sense in light of the lessons learned in 2005 and 2008, but the particular station selection is odd, and misses not only high-ridership stations, but also large concentrations of Catholics, indicating a failure of market research if nothing else. Meanwhile, the Broad Street Line, which carries about as many riders by itself as the entire Regional Rail system does put together, also has a bizarre selection of stations open. It is picking up passengers from Fern Rock — with a tiny parking lot and a connection to a Regional Rail station that is being bypassed — and bypassing Olney, with a higher ridership of both walkup riders and riders connecting from bus lines. Stations like Erie that would take up the slack for the closed Chestnut Hill East Line are also to remain shuttered. The express tracks on North Broad are not leveraged at all.

SEPTA knows where its ridership comes from and also how to optimize its own capacity. This plan does not, quite, do that, even considering all of the actual hard constraints.

The other shoe finally dropped in the dead-news period around the Independence Day weekend, with rumors swirling about an eight-foot high security fence around Center City, Girard to South. Nobody in their right minds would ever suggest such a thing in an active, vibrant, residential city like Philadelphia, but we don’t pay the Secret Service to be in their right minds. What we do pay them for, it’s sometimes unclear, but the generally accepted answer is “paranoia”.  Moreover, while there are vibrant, urban, and residential parts of Washington, DC, they tend to be sufficiently far away from the security fortresses on and near Pennsylvania Avenue.  But it’s becoming ever more clear that a security state infrastructure with no idea how to conduct itself in a real city environment (sorry, DC) is coming to town.  That would be an amusing or frustrating annoyance, but it threatens real harm to real people.

City-dwellers rely on their Freedom of Movement no less than rural or suburban residents.  What the Secret Service want to do is kill the city for at least two days, preserve it in amber while the Pope visits, and then return it to working order.  This is not how a society works.  The entire reason to have such a massive event in a city is the pre-existing infrastructure to keep so many people fed, watered, sheltered from the elements, and so forth.  That infrastructure isn’t just buildings, wires, and pipes, it’s the people to run them, and right now as many of those people as can are booking the weekend or the entire week out of town.

Moreover, whenever there is such a large gathering of people, there is an uptick in the rate of serious medical emergencies, from the increased population if nothing else.  The last time a Bishop of Rome came to Philadelphia, 40 people were hospitalized for heart problems (and there was also a swarm of bees).  Add in to that the “miles of walking” that the City and the Secret Service are asking the faithful to do this time, and the largely suburban demographics of American Catholicism where walking long distances is less of a thing.  If the weather is sunny and warm, we will see heat exhaustion.  If the weather is rainy and windy, those caught unprepared could suffer hypothermia, even at room temperature.  Overall, the security measures intended to save lives will exacerbate health problems and put many more lives at risk.  And the authorities have made no mention of how emergency vehicles will get around the swarms of pedestrians within the secure zone to reach people in distress.

I have held off on writing this post for a long time, mostly because I don’t know of a good direction to channel the anger I have at this situation.  Fixing this won’t be a matter of adding one station to the list of operating stations, it requires a complete rethink of how we plan for secure spaces, and also the priorities we give to keeping people safe from the most common and present dangers as opposed to the most lurid fears of our imaginations.  The last time the feds tried to pull one on us in the name of security, by closing the 500 block of Chestnut Street to all traffic, we eventually organized to tell them to go pound sand.  Sadly, it seems that the preferred option this time is to just let them do what they like, in the knowledge that they’re only going to be here for a week.  One hopes that, if the disruptions were to last any longer, there would be more signs of open revolt.  For that matter, I live in hope that there will be more targeted outrage between now and September.