Wednesday Infrastructure Film Festival

If you couldn’t make it to today’s noon open house at 1234 Market Street, and you can’t make it to the evening show in an hour, you should watch this presentation, given by Jeff Kneuppel to the SEPTA Board back in December. Today’s presentation (given ably by CFO Rich Burnfield) doesn’t actually expand on anything, although the Q&A sessions are yielding valuable information. Although largely, that information is in the form of, “We [SEPTA] are still in the process of finding that out”. At least we’re down to mostly the known unknowns.

If you’d like to see what kind of a bullet we dodged when Act 89 passed last November, I present for your viewing, uh, “pleasure”, this 1974 film produced by the Penn Central Railroad, then four years into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, begging for Federal relief to repair its crumbling physical plant. That intervention wouldn’t come for another two years, when the insolvent railroad, and many of its likewise-bankrupt Northeastern competitors, were nationalized and folded into Conrail.

Let it be known

…that when I wrote this post describing how to carve up DRPA and its bridge revenues in such a way that it could never rise from the dead again, I was intending to include actual budget numbers from DRPA’s own documents, to show that there was enough revenue to go around to SEPTA, NJT, the bridges, and the bondholders. I didn’t do that because those budget PDFs are in a completely unreadable font, and I had too many demands on my time to decode them manually like a latter-day Rosetta stone. It’s my intent to come back to it, but if someone wants to scoop me on that, I won’t even be mad.

Meanwhile, the meme that PATCO could be run more efficiently under the umbrella of a larger agency with economies of scale, and specifically SEPTA, has successfully infected Pennsylvania State Senator John Rafferty (R-Montco). I don’t know if someone in the Senator’s office reads this blog, or if the idea is simply obvious enough to originate elsewhere independently. But if it moves the ball forward on phasing out our reliance on vampire squid bondholders for our vital infrastructure, then I’m all for it, no matter how it happened.

We’re getting late night subways, maybe! Is it really all that exciting?

(spoiler alert: maybe)

Never let it be said that SEPTA doesn’t listen to feedback. Local found-art blogger Conrad Benner (a/k/a Streets Dept.) posted a petition to restore 24/7 rail service to the Subway and the El on Tuesday. On Wednesday, that petition had 1,000 signatures. And today (Thursday), SEPTA’s GM Joe Casey and CFO Rich Burnfield are on the record with Paul Nussbaum in the Inquirer about extending Subway and El service to 3:00a on Friday and Saturday nights. So much for being the McDonalds of slacktivism! That’s got to be a new record for progress.

But it’s not really all that surprising. As Sandy Smith pointed out in the comments section of Phillymag, this is a Back to the Future move, since the BSL and MFL ran 24/7 until 1991. SEPTA bustituting its main rapid transit lines every night was not originally sold as a budget-trimming measure. It was because, in the recession of 1990-91, the homeless flooded into stations and concourses for shelter, and because train conductors handled fare collection overnight and station gates were left open (the practice still survives today at Chinatown Station in off-hours), there was no legal recourse to clear squatters off the platforms. This was a nuisance to riders and a perceived safety and security threat, so SEPTA ran up the white flag and switched to buses. The fact that Benner and so many of the other petitioners are citing the perceived security of station platforms being higher than the surrounding streets, would be completely fantastical to the proverbial Rip Van Winkle who spent the last 20 years in a coma.

It’s actually somewhat obscure what the bottom line impact is, for buses vs. rail. In 1991, the El and Subway still ran two-person train operations, and the massive bank of supercapacitors reclaiming electricity from braking trains was still science fiction, so the operations cost of running trains was much higher then as compared to now. (The sluggish and worn-out M-3 Almond Joys were still running on the El, too.) And the demand for overnight transit was far lower in 1991: Center City and the neighborhoods around it weren’t yet in the midst of a national urban renaissance as they are today. Nor did 1991 have the advanced policing techniques and cheap and ubiquitous CCTV cameras that we have today, which provide an alternative to having a SEPTA policeman on every train and every platform.

What I can testify to from personal experience, is that today the Owl buses do a very brisk business, all night, despite their unattractiveness to choice riders. My fiancée’s morning commute often involves taking the last Broad Street Owl bus of the morning to Suburban Station, and sometimes I’m right there with her. (The 5:00 Subway train from Fern Rock doesn’t get to City Hall in time to make the 5:26 RRD train to Delaware.) That bus is standing room only at Girard Avenue. While the people staggering out of bars at closing time are a loud constituency for overnight train service, the vast majority of the travel demand during those hours comes from people just trying to get to or from work.

So, full speed ahead for restoring SEPTA’s subways to their rightful former glory? Not so fast. There are a lot of factors that go into a decision like this. One reason SEPTA is in better shape today than it was 23 years ago, is that it’s made good use of all those overnight closures to bring the system back to a state of good repair, without reliance on frequent weekend closures or single-tracking. Compare this to PATCO, which retains 24/7 service but is now paying for that with an inability to conduct vital repairs to the Ben Franklin Bridge without melting down. Also, SEPTA is not going to open up its platforms overnight again; and that necessitates the existence of over 60 booth trolls to handle fare collection duties during the graveyard shift. Even if those were non-union positions, and they’re not, that’s a lot of cash to spend on salaries. Now, it’s true that a lot of those positions might be dispensed with after the full rollout of NPT, but that might negate the security advantage of being off the sidewalks in the middle of the night. There are other positions that SEPTA doesn’t currently need to staff overnight, like dispatchers in the subway control center at 1234 Market Street.

Some of the cost considerations are actually in favor of restoring rail service; still others are of indeterminate valence. With service every 15 minutes, El service can be covered by six train operators, as opposed to ten bus drivers. The wear and tear of operating a full six-car train is definitely more than the cost of running a single 40-foot bus, but is it 67% higher? Probably yes. Is the cost of electric traction higher than the bill for diesel fuel? Probably not, given regenerative power and off-off-peak electricity costs. Can SEPTA offset maintenance costs by running shorter trains? It would require breaking up sets in 69th Street Yard, which would require additional labor there, but you could start doing that at 9:00p, and not wait for midnight. The M-4s have been run in 4-car sets on Sundays in the past, but nobody outside SEPTA knows if 2-car sets can be run on the El. The Subway ought to be able to run the two-car trains that run on the Ridge Spur during the day, assuming that trains don’t gap out and lose contact with the third rail at the crossover north of Pattison Station.

And even with SEPTA Police being awesome and cameras being festooned off of every piece of property SEPTA owns, it’s still true that we don’t know for sure that stations are safer than street corners at 3:00a. They might, but they might not. Perceptions are one thing, statistics are another. And not all perceptions are created equal; as I pointed out in a comment to Phillymag, I feel perfectly safe taking the Owl buses at whatever hour, “because I have the privilege associated with being a 30 year old, 5’10”, 200+lbs. man of visually indeterminate ethnicity”. Not everyone is so fortunate. And it’s cynical, but somebody at SEPTA has to have noticed that they bear no liability for anything that happens to anybody waiting on a lonely stretch of sidewalk, while they can and certainly will be sued for anything that happens on a station platform.

With all this legitimate uncertainty about the pros and cons, it’s no surprise that SEPTA is playing it very safe, and is only talking about a pilot program to extend train service until 3:00a on Friday and Saturday nights. (The speed with which they responded, though, indicates it was something already being tossed around conference rooms at 1234 Market St.) Given the friction involved in the changeover from rail to bus and back, with buses covering routes 40% slower than their steel-wheeled counterparts, and given that the trains start service at 5:00 sharp, I fully expect any extension to 3:00 to actually be an all-night service. There’s no benefit to be gained from closing for two hours, except possibly spite. I also expect a Friday-Saturday pilot to succeed, since SEPTA’s other nightlife-oriented service pilot, the late night trains on the Manayunk-Norristown, Trenton, and Paoli-Thorndale Lines on Friday and Saturday nights, are still running after several years. And those serve a much smaller market, bringing the barhoppers of Manayunk and Center City (only) back to their dorms in Overbrook, Villanova, and New Brunswick. (Yes, I’m stereotyping. But so was whoever cooked up the schedule, and they were right.)

Am I in favor of restoring overnight rail service the other five nights of the week? Not really. I can make a solid argument that there’s enough nightlife on Thursday to treat it equally with the traditional weekend, and I would really like it if the trains ran even a half hour later at night and earlier in the morning.

But hats off to Conrad Benner, for moving the Overton Window for this far enough for SEPTA to seize the opportunity to be the good guy. After all, #SEPTA247 makes a great hashtag and great slogan; “SEPTA 20/4 and 24/3” doesn’t get the blood going quite so well. See you all on the late train to Fern Rock.

When all you have is a bus-planning hammer, beware of oddly-shaped nails

My first guest post for this old city is up! If you haven’t added them to your daily reading, do so without passing Go or collecting $200; Geoff and Jon are really committed to moving the ball forward on good public space in Philadelphia, and of course land use and transportation are always two sides of the same coin.

For those of you arriving here from Jon’s link, welcome! I hope you find it educational here, but I suppose I’ll also settle for being entertaining. I’m sorry my WordPress stylesheet is much more boring than Geoff’s Drupal stylesheet.

The crossposted full text appears here, after the jump.
Continue reading When all you have is a bus-planning hammer, beware of oddly-shaped nails

Don’t let anyone tell you we’re not winning

Key passage from Jared Brey’s writeup of the City Planning Commission blessing the plans for Comcast II:

[Liberty Property Trust’s John] Gattuso said that Liberty’s “biggest miss” in building the first Comcast tower—the soon-to-be second-tallest building in the city—was not including enough bicycle parking. The new tower will include spaces for approximately 175 bikes, Gattuso said.

“It’s the biggest thing we missed in the first building, because we just didn’t have the prototype or the history,” Gattuso said. “And almost from the first day of operation, the 25 bike racks we had were overwhelmed, and we added another one, and we added another one, so what we’re trying to do is be more anticipatory of that as we move forward.”

By contrast, Gattuso said, the automobile parking facility at the existing Comcast tower is underused; only around 60 percent of its 87 parking spaces are occupied on a given day. The new tower will have 58 underground parking spaces, with room for six NBC10 news vans.

4,000 office jobs, 58 parking spaces.  People are voting with their feet, and the private sector is taking notice.  Put that in your Google Bus tailpipe and smoke it, San Francisco.


The Bergen Record is reporting that NJ Transit Executive Director and notorious fuckup Jim Weinstein is not long for his post.

Weinstein, 67, now appears to be on his way out. His faithfulness may not have been enough to overcome a series of high-profile failures that occurred under his watch, most notably, the agency’s ill-fated decision to abandon nearly 400 railcars and locomotives in flood-prone rail yards during Superstorm Sandy and its clumsy handling of Super Bowl transportation. Thousands of football fans were stranded at MetLife Stadium for hours because NJ Transit was unprepared for the 33,000 football fans that overwhelmed the system.

He is expected to be replaced by Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, a former senior vice president at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital construction program who is currently executive director at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

His pending departure comes amid growing dissatisfaction among NJ Transit employees, who complain of low morale and favoritism in the upper ranks; tensions with Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, who, as chairman of NJ Transit’s board, is Weinstein’s boss; and a commuter rail and bus system so plagued with breakdowns that some customers have told the board it’s no longer reliable.

It seems as though interpersonal politics, and not any kind of accountability for how badly NJ Transit has screwed the pooch under his watch, is the main reason for Weinstein’s departure. That’s a real pity. You’d think that, if there were ever a time that called for the establishment of command responsibility for a public official, it would be failure to protect almost half a billion dollars in public assets from a storm that was accurately predicted several days out. But no, the only thing that gets you fired in Chris Christie’s New Jersey is being no longer useful to Chris Christie. And as we know, Governor Christie is a classic windshield perspective politician with no use for transit in any form.

God help us all.

Skeleton bus service and Regional Rail will limp on until 10:00p

Well, a few hours after this tweet, SEPTA came up with an answer to Tim’s question.

SEPTA Routes 6, 14, 17, 21, 23, 52, 56, 59, 66, 79, 99, 104 are running until the close of service at 10:00p. Regional Rail will also shut down at that time: details of the rest of the evening’s schedule are at this link. The NHSL will also shut down at 10:00, while trolley service is expected to run until the scheduled last runs, on those lines as have them.

The El and Subway trains will run all night, again.

PATCO’s construction schedule is suspended tomorrow.