SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail project has finally selected a Locally Preferred Alternative, and much to my surprise, the winner was not the elevated alignment over US 202, but rather the alignment alongside the PECO transmission line and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
There’s a lot to take in, so I’ll just hit the top five highlights on each side.
- It’s short. That’s an awfully weird thing to lead with, but it does mean that the amount of budget bloat due to scope creep has been kept to an absolute minimum.
- It has the backing of the KOP/VF business community. The KOP Rail Coalition, which was started as an advocacy arm by the KOP Business Improvement District, was backing PECO/Turnpike. That political support from deep-pocketed interests might be crucial if local funding needs to be found.
- It provides the opportunity for real, from-scratch TOD near the Henderson Road station. The land south of the proposed station site is self-storage and other light industrial that can be easily redeveloped into a walkable core in notoriously car-dependent Upper Merion Township.
- Jason Laughlin reports that there may be a station “inside” the KoP mall. This would be a new feature, since all of this round of proposals have previously been kept to the perimeter of the property, which was an unideal way to serve the biggest destination on the line. However, details on this are waiting for the open houses to clear up.
- It provides the opportunity to gloat at Turnpike drivers. Under most circumstances, having a highway and railway next to and parallel to each other is bad design, since the highway both siphons away ridership and blocks access to stations. In this case, there are no stations proposed on the segment along the Turnpike, and the Turnpike is serving a different market than the train. Which means that one can engage in one of my favorite pastimes, which is laughing at the occupants of cars stuck in self-inflicted traffic as one whizzes by in the comfort of a fast-moving train. (I have never claimed to be a nice person.)
- The price tag. As of the release of the Economy League of Philadelphia/Econsult Economic Impact Study last December, the projected budget of this project is $1.0-1.2 billion. This would have been a disappointing-but-reasonable per-km budget for one of the longer alternatives, like US 202/North Gulph Road. But at $150 million+/km, it shows a dangerous amount of flab for a purely elevated route. Sources inside SEPTA claim that the underlying geology and topography are challenging, and that this is driving up the per-km cost. I’m open to that explanation, but not yet convinced. This is also blowing a giant hole in any case we might have had that we can keep costs under control in this town. Not only is this a large number in absolute terms, it is a 100% increase over SEPTA’s estimates from two years ago. The public is owed a deeper explanation of what happened here.
- No sprawl repair forthcoming on US 202. Dekalb Pike (a/k/a US 202 through King of Prussia) is a concrete hellscape of a stroad, lined with strip malls, punctuated with hotels, and only consistently possessing a narrow, anxiety-inducing sidewalk on one side. And yes, I have been there on foot before. The strip malls have increasingly high vacancy for the area, and the hotels could use the boost from direct connections to the mall, the convention center, and other destinations along the KoP extension and the NHSL. Redevelopment is called for. So is a road diet. Unfortunately for future taxpayers of Upper Merion Township, it doesn’t seem like either is in the cards.
- Still no Greater Philadelphia Wegman’s with good transit access. This is mostly Wegmans’ fault for choosing such obnoxious locations, though. (Their complete abandonment of urban Rochester, where they started, is still shameful.) SEPTA had higher priorities and stuck to them.
- No commitment to frequent Manayunk/Norristown service. It had better not even take that long; GM Jeff Kneuppel promised us 30 minute headways “soon” in September of 2014. Without frequent connecting service in Norristown serving Conshohocken, Northwest Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, and Center City, the NHSL extension makes much less sense as a regional project, and also abandons those passengers who take the 124/125 today from Wissahickon. 30 minute headways need to happen Right Now. There should be a plan in place for 20 minute headways by the time the NHSL extension opens.
- Unlikely to satisfy NIMBY opposition. I lied. This isn’t actually bad. The loudest NIMBY opposition is more concerned with keeping out the poors and the blahs than it is with wise investments for the future of Upper Merion Township. If they’re successful, they’re clearly intending to get out at the top of the market, or perhaps they’ll enjoy watching their children immiserated by spiraling tax burden as the bill for maintaining the infrastructure that underpins sprawl development comes due. In any event, we should welcome their hatred, while taking care to address the more legitimate concerns of impacted neighbors.
The next round of public meetings starts next Monday, March 7th.