Reminder: buy your tickets today!

Travel protips for Thanksgiving week:

Just as a reminder, while many ticket offices are open for extended hours tomorrow, they will be swamped by people trying to get out for Thanksgiving travel. This especially applies to the SEPTA and Amtrak ticket offices at 30th Street Station, as well as the Amtrak and NJ Transit TVMs there. If you still haven’t yet bought or picked up your train ticket for tomorrow, do it on your way home today. Some outlying ticket offices may have extended hours today as well; if they do, take advantage of that. Getting tickets a day or more early saved my bacon as an undergrad in the suburbs, when the lines at the ticket office could be up to 15 minutes long leading up to every midday departure on Wednesday.

Also, if your Regional Rail trip involves Trenton or the Airport, remember to get your ticket through to those points to save time and money.

If you have any choice in the matter at all, don’t pay cash on board tomorrow; that’s going to be a mess, and you will make a conductor’s already hard life even worse.

Amtrak, of course, is on a modified schedule throughout the holiday week, and if it’s part of your holiday plans you should have booked weeks ago. But, there are still a few seats available on most trains tomorrow to both New York and Washington, although your procrastination tax will be to pay through the nose for those last tickets. Reserved seating is in effect for all Keystone Service trains.

Travel safe, travel smart, and have a happy holiday!

You will go to space today

Given the massive cloud of rumor, uncertainty, and arm-twisting that hung over Harrisburg this morning, I resolved not to write up a final postmortem of transportation in Pennsylvania until the General Assembly’s 11:00p curfew had passed tonight, to allow for any last minute surprises. Still, I was riding a train out to the suburbs to watch NASA launch a rocket from Wallops Island when the unexpected word came in, that a third vote on the Micozzie Amendment had passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

So, thanks to the 98 Representatives who voted ‘aye’ yesterday, and six Republican and two Democratic switchers who got us over the line tonight, we will have merely bad roads, bridges, and transit in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as opposed to non-existent roads, bridges, and transit. Hooray for small miracles. But that will keep the wolf from the door for the next year, as we enter a major election year and normal politics grinds to a halt. And for the 10,500 daily riders of the Media/Elwyn Line, that should be enough to keep their ride moving. So, thank you, PA House. After trying every alternative, you managed to do your job. And since you did have a choice in the matter, and seriously contemplated not doing your job, I supposed I’m grateful for it.

The official roll call on the vote is here, for those of you who want to know where your Representative stood. The bill now goes back to the Senate for approval.

My especial thanks to Mary Wilson and Kate Giammarise for live-tweeting the action from the State Capitol. They brought as much sense as could be brought to an often nonsensical week, and opinion-slingers like me couldn’t function without shoeleather reporters like them on the ground. Thanks, and we’ll see you again in 2015.

Late breaking news: Micozzie Amendment fails 98-103, PA Transportation in limbo

The Micozzie Amendment, which was the House’s compromise plan to fund transportation in Pennsylvania, was defeated 98-103 at 9:52pm tonight. Word from livebloggers in the gallery in Harrisburg is that moderates from both parties voted aye, while staunch union backers on the left of the Democratic caucus teamed up with anti-everything members of the Republican far right to kill the bill.

No word yet on what Plan B is.

Transportation bill on the floor of the Pennsylvania House

We’ve been baited and promised and jerked around continuously since September, but with debate now underway and hours in, a vote on a transportation package seems genuinely imminent tonight. The bill under discussion is a $2.3 billion/year plan, with $1.65 billion going to roads and bridges, and $497 million for transit and $144 million for everything else, including bikes and waterways. That’s not really enough transit funding to get SEPTA out of the deferred capital spending hole it’s in, but it can stem the bleeding until the next election.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this (there’s a live stream on the PA House Republican Caucus website, but it’s getting hammered into unusability), and I’ll update tomorrow with a recap and any last-minute detail changes, but the traditional practice of the General Assembly is to hold off any shenanigans to the dead of night, after newspaper reporters’ deadlines have passed. In this case, shenanigans might involve not having a vote, or further amending the bill and then voting on it. Presumably the choreography has been set, and we’re waiting to see what happens with bated breath. Stay tuned…

Can’t be arsed

There’s been some discussion lately on ditching the phrase “Delaware Valley” in favor of some variant of “Greater Philadelphia”.  The reason given is that “Delaware Valley” allows (suburban) Philadelphians to dissociate themselves from Philadelphia.

I admire where the sentiment is coming from, but for now, I can’t see the language choice as important enough to police my own language or scold anyone else for theirs.  This may change in the future, or it may not.  Still, I thought I should make a note for those as do care.

Bridgeport viaduct reopens today as capital funding becomes grave crisis

It is 4:45am. The first northbound Norristown High Speed Line (NHSL) train in revenue service is about to cross the Bridgeport viaduct into Norristown, ending a four month closure for critical repair work. NHSL Norristown riders can breathe a sigh of relief, with cumbersome shuttle busing no longer part of their daily routine.

But as one major repair project ends, the prospect of starting others that are just as needed grows dimmer. Not a week has gone by since mid-September, that either House Majority Leader Turzai, Governor Corbett, PennDOT Secretary Schoch, or some other elected official (or their anonymous-source staffers) have repeatedly pledged a vote in the House of Representatives on the SB1 transportation funding bill within the week. No vote has occurred, presumably because the votes to pass aren’t there yet, and the forecasts coming out of Harrisburg are dismal.

The ongoing hangup seems to be an insistence on the part of conservative Republicans to remove prevailing wage rules on transportation projects between $25,000 and $100,000. That is a move designed to antagonize unions, although the level of the provocation far outweighs the level of damage to union workers’ interests, especially compared to the most likely alternative, which is a massive cutback at PennDOT. This mostly reads as what Josh Marshall once called the “Bitch-Slap Theory of electoral politics” — the substance of the attack is irrelevant, while making the attack is a goal in itself. Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians, House Democrats have closed ranks with their union supporters, and there aren’t enough Republican votes to pass transportation funding out of the House without Democratic help. It’s admirable that the Democratic Party isn’t throwing labor under the bus, but it wasn’t necessary in the first place; they and we are all already under this bus, by virtue of having lost all three elected branches of government. SB1 was already a Tea Party-friendly shit sandwich, going through extra circumlocutions to give cover to Gov. Corbett and his no-new-taxes pledge, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances.

Harrisburg Democrats have clearly been tempted by the strategy option to wait out Tom Corbett, who will no longer be Governor come January 20th, 2015, barring the biggest choke job in Pennsylvania since the 1964 Phillies. Unfortunately, SEPTA’s riders can’t wait that long; according to SEPTA’s Service Triage plan, the Cynwyd Line will be out of service before then, and the Media/Elwyn Line will follow almost immediately thereafter. Crum Creek Viaduct is in as bad of shape as Bridgeport was, and apart from some emergency repairs to keep it open on recent weekends, there is no money for SEPTA to keep it safe to operate. More than 11,000 daily riders will lose service on these two lines. Construction unions should signal to their Democratic allies that they should take the deal on the table if it means getting transportation projects like Crum Creek Viaduct repair funded, in exchange for a rollback of the offending change, and possibly other concessions, in 2015. The towns of Delaware County along the Media/Elwyn Line, both the white-collar professional boroughs west of Swarthmore, and the blue-collar working class townships east of Morton, will remember (or, with any amount of skill by the Democratic general election candidate, be constantly reminded).

SB1, with the prevailing wage rule change, is even more of a shit sandwich than it was as a clean bill, but it’s the only thing on the table that will get SEPTA through the next two years. If you have a Republican representative, call them and urge them to support a clean SB1. If you have a Democratic representative, tell them to negotiate with the construction unions to get to a deal. It is 4:45am now, but the clock is still ticking down to midnight.

Ewing Township has modest but promising plans for West Trenton Station

The Times of Trenton reports that Ewing, NJ is looking into transit upgrades centered on West Trenton Station, which lies in the township’s borders. Mostly this consists of direct bus service from the station to Downtown Trenton, Trenton-Mercer Airport (the back side of which is a stone’s throw away), and New Brunswick. The station itself is to be renovated, and the parking lots are to be expanded.

The SEPTA/CSX West Trenton Line, on which the station sits and marks the end of SEPTA territory, was formerly the Reading/Central Railroad of New Jersey’s intercity route from Reading Terminal to Jersey City and Newark. This service, whose flagship trains were the New York supercommuter-oriented Wall Street and Crusader, outlasted both of its host railroads. Through-service ended in 1981, and NJDOT-operated connecting service on the New Jersey side only lasted another year afterwards. As you might expect, the slightest glance of attention has caused the usual railfan suspects to light up in excitement and call for the reactivation of train service north of West Trenton. Much as I admire where they’re coming from, that would be a waste of resources that are just as scarce east of the Delaware as they are west of it. The proposed bus connections, done right, are a much better deal for riders.

First, there’s the route. North from West Trenton, the freight-only section of the line passes through mostly rural and sparse exurban portions of Mercer and Somerset Counties, before joining up with NJT’s Raritan Valley Line at Bound Brook. The population available today for walk-up service to West Trenton Line stations is epsilon. While in Pennsylvania, SEPTA West Trenton Line has superior catchment and ridership than the Trenton Line, in New Jersey the ex-Reading route misses the population and job centers of Princeton and New Brunswick well to the west. The first truly major destination on the line is the terminal, Newark Penn Station. This does not bode well for potential ridership, and since terminal capacity at Newark, Hoboken, and New York is limited, West Trenton service would have to come at least partly at the expense of Raritan Valley Line service west of Bound Brook.

The second problem is speed. No train via Bound Brook is ever going to beat a bus connection to the Northeast Corridor for speed. Neither the State of New Jersey nor CSX has any interest in spending the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to upgrade West Trenton Line tracks to handle passenger trains faster than 79 mph. In fact, CSX would prefer to keep passengers off its mainline as much as possible, to prevent congestion and interference on its line. SEPTA has given up trying to thread the needle with CSX, and sought and received a $10 million TIGER grant to separate its tracks from CSX’s between Neshaminy and West Trenton. Meanwhile, ALP-46A-hauled trains are approved for speeds up to 125 mph on the NEC. And until the Gateway project is built, NJT is completely slot-constrained at New York Penn Station, and would prefer to run fewer, longer trains, as much as possible. The purchase of the ALP-45DP dual-power locomotive now gives a technical possibility of direct service to New York from non-electrified lines like Raritan Valley (or West Trenton), but NJT is being very conservative about where and when it uses its limited fleet of ALP-45DPs. In any event, an ALP-45DP hauling eight Multilevel cars from West Trenton is a significantly worse deal for NJT than an ALP-46 hauling ten. And West Trenton probably can’t generate enough traffic to fill eight cars.

So frequent, direct bus service from West Trenton to Trenton seems like an ideal compromise between the status quo and a restoration that isn’t happening. The present bus connection is a slow local bus that takes far too much time to go such a short distance. The additional connection to New Brunswick is just a faster connection for Pennsylvania residents to the mid-corridor job centers, bypassing downtown Trenton traffic. And the link to Trenton-Mercer Airport opens that transit-inaccessible airport up to non-drivers for the first time, just as its main runway has reopened and Frontier Airlines is announcing new routes (and airport parking is no longer free). Running that as a short extension of the Trenton-West Trenton shuttle is a no-brainer.

The proposal to expand parking raises its own concerns. The first is, always, whether private transit-oriented development would be a superior use of the land. It almost always is, (park-and-ride is considered harmful), and the only reason I’m skeptical of its being able to succeed in Ewing, is that there’s already a large, walkable settlement in Southern Mercer County with a good transit connection to Philadelphia. It’s called Trenton, and it doesn’t attract much private-sector development, and not for lack of trying, nor for natural advantages. More and more bimetropolitan households (one earner commuting to the New York MSA, a second commuting to the Philadelphia MSA) are choosing to locate in Bucks County instead of Mercer County, a reversal of the historical trend, and Ewing Township doesn’t bring enough to the table to reverse that shift by itself. Still, one has to wonder at the amount of space being given over to parking at West Trenton, and ask how many Jakriborgs would that be?

The other concern, which is somewhat contradictory to the first, is the legalization and regularization of ride-and-park at West Trenton Station, which is increasingly popular as the reverse-commute market from Philadelphia to Mercer County grows. If West Trenton Station and its parking lots aren’t going anywhere, then we ought to get the best value for them, and that involves getting more than one rider per parking space per day, and leveraging our transit network to get cars out of Central Philadelphia where they do the most harm.