Ryan Briggs wrote a story last week in Next City about the status of the City Branch, the ex-Reading legacy trench/tunnel stretching along Callowhill Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. His article was an excellent summary of the state of play, between those who would see the City Branch as part of a linear park that would also encompass the Reading Viaduct, and those who would see some form of transit there.
Let me be perfectly clear up front: I think the City Branch needs to be transit. I think making it a park is misguided, and completely redundant with efforts to make the Parkway a friendlier environment for pedestrians and cyclists. In the magic land of infinite money, I’d love to have light rail running through the City Branch as a North Philadelphia equivalent of today’s Subway-Surface Trolley Tunnel, but here in reality I recognize that the expense of restoring tracks on 29th Street and other major North Philly transit corridors is prohibitive, and this means that BRT options are much more likely, and I’m really fine with that.
But I’m worried. DVRPC has figured out, somewhat to its credit, that the expensive part of any below-grade transit project is the stations. (Or paying New York City prices.) But one of its proposals for how to deal with that expense when it comes to the City Branch is to basically turn the route into a giant roller coaster, rising up to street level for station stops before diving back down to the tunnel floor. If this makes no sense to you, you’re not alone. As Briggs himself put it later, “The DVRPC person I talked to had to explain it to me like four times before I really believed that she was seriously proposing that as a way of running the BRT line.” The necessity of repetition was not because Briggs is in any way unintelligent. My reaction to this report, is that I want to try out whatever hallucinogens have been slipped into the water on the 8th Floor of 190 N 6th St, because they’re obviously a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I don’t think building giant hills into our transit is exactly a winning cost-saving measure. Just… no.
The other idea they’re looking at makes much more sense, although it also has a ring of defeatism: not having any stations. Simply running express from Center City to 31st and Girard would be a recognition that this project is not about connecting to close-in tourist attractions along the Parkway, as the hoary appellation “Cultural Corridor BRT” implies. Instead, City Branch transit is about bringing farther out neighborhoods with poor transit service much closer to Center City. Take a look at this map excerpt from SEPTA’s Route 48, a high-ridership line that runs roughly parallel to the City Branch:
Route 48 runs 60-foot articulated buses. (They just started running shiny new hybrid-electric ones.) Do you think all those 90 degree turns through the narrow streets of Fairmount might slow down a bendy bus? Because if so, congratulations, you have an excellent grasp of reality. A reality that takes significant time out of the lives of the residents of northern Fairmount, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion, every day. And because 29th Street is so far west, taking a crosstown bus or trolley to the Broad Street Line is often not a faster alternative for many 48 riders.
Honestly, there exists no good option for surface transit to thread the needle between Eastern State Penitentiary and Girard College to the east, and the Art Museum and Fairmount Park to the west. The street grid is just too fractured and disjoint. By splitting Route 48 into an express route for Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown via the City Branch, and a local circulator for Fairmount on the surface, perhaps anchored at the Zoo, that can make transit a superior option and experience for both neighborhoods. Bringing Route 32 into the tunnel would also help that bus, which unlike Route 48 is poor-performing. The only thing I don’t like is separating the bus routes for Strawberry Mansion (predominantly black) and Brewerytown (gentrifying, but still majority black) from Fairmount (predominantly white), but after a lot of soul-searching and privilege-checking, I sincerely think that the split would benefit both, and that more of the benefits would accrue to the express riders, not the Greater Center City residents. People will object to the optics, regardless of the merits, but the real threat comes from keeping the everyday needs of poor and working-class Philadelphians, regardless of color, outside the sight of rich Philadelphians.
I think the equity argument, specifically the benefit gained from keeping the the city’s most and least privileged on the same vehicle, is one of the stronger arguments in favor of having mid-line stations, or even just one mid-line station, on a City Branch busway, at the bare minimum. I would recommend 23rd/Pennsylvania/Spring Garden/Eakins Oval as the priority, for access to the Art Museum and connections to Route 43, but I think I can easily be talked into an alternate location if presented with a good case.
But even if nobody can rummage around in the couch cushions hard enough to fund stairs, elevators, and platforms in the City Branch tunnel, which once saw 4-6 tracks and coal-burning locomotives, it’s still worth building, for mobility’s — and equity’s — sake.