The pros and cons of SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail

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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 4.03.26 PM
I’m borrowing this map from the Philadelphia Inquirer under Fair Use.  I don’t know who actually made it, though.  They didn’t say.

There’s a lot to take in, so I’ll just hit the top five highlights on each side.

The Good:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 Bad:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

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7 thoughts on “The pros and cons of SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail”

  1. The region never had a case for competent cost control in the 21st century, considering the bundled costs accompanying the 3-mile, $100 million Wawa extension, which is by far the least cost-effective commuter rail project in the country this past decade (notwithstanding MBTA’s South Coast rail projections). As with Lansdale, SEPTA has a bad habit of paying out-of-pocket for the arbitrary whims and demands of TAD developers, even though there is no immediate hope of that happening at all in the case of Wawa/Franklin Mint. Also consider the South Jersey Route 42 “BRT” project, $120 million for selective TSP and shoulder-running lanes, projecting a mere 1,200 new daily riders. This certainly slipped through everyone’s radar. These might not have been >$1B projects, but they preclude the region from doing anything greater in the current state of things.

    202 doesn’t need a concrete viaduct and steel rails in 20 years to justify a road diet and complete rezoning today, and we should stop using costly transit as the sole arbiter of TOD/sprawl repair. We don’t necessarily need the T for TOD. In any case, provision for a station over Dekalb Pike, however costly, should be baked into the construction.

    With NOR service, our most reasonable chance of that happening anytime soon is to petition the state to allow SEPTA to divert Act 89 funds to the operating budget. Even so, there is no guarantee that additional off-peak trains will be running past the newly-constructed interlocking at Miquon.

  2. I seem to be missing something in the #NoKOPRail petition on Change.org that others see, and maybe I need to visit the page of the organizer I interviewed for my Phillymag story on the opposition to see if I can find it.

    That “something” are the mentions of “crime” and “graffiti” Chris Sawyer refers to on Philadelinquency. I tend to be sensitive to coded racial appeals too, but I find none in the language of the petition, which is pure NIMBY (literally: one of the organizers lives in the subdivision all five alternatives pass) with a dollop of “nobody asked us” on top. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, as Sawyer suggests.

    1. The references used to be there, but they’ve been busy bees, scrubbing their Twitter and (I presume) FB of quite a lot of material that they now consider embarrassing or counterproductive.

      Example:
      Link to original tweet (now 404): https://twitter.com/NoKOPRail/status/686289595303104513
      Google cached version: https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:I602EI_XLxIJ:https://twitter.com/nokoprail/status/686289595303104513+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us
      Screenshot: https://sictransitphiladelphia.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/screen-shot-2016-03-04-at-8-45-48-pm.png
      Where they were linking to, describing it as “the tip of the iceberg”: http://www.examiner.com/article/violent-crimes-committed-by-septa-regional-rail-stations-is-your-station-safe

      That’s a relatively mild reference, but it’s one I could pull in 5 minutes. I should really have taken a lot more screenshots, but I admit I was surprised that they would pull so many tweets they seemed so proud of such a short time ago.

  3. I don’t entirely understand the routing. I tried digging through the information on the SEPTA web site but it I couldn’t figure it out. How does this connect with the existing line? Would it go from Norristown to King of Prussia to 69th St, or just King of Prussia to Norristown requiring a connection to get to 69th, or what?

    Seems kind of a waste to me, in any case. We have plenty of good transit here already (like the existing NHSL) that just happens to be surrounded by parking lots and detached houses. I think it would make more sense to rezone around the existing stations. Bring the mall to the transit, rather than the other way around.

    Of course I guess you could argue that the two terminals, Norristown and 69th, have reasonable density already, but are not exactly thriving.

    1. The connection would be a spur from the main NHSL ROW somewhere between the Hughes Park stop near Crooked Lane and the DeKalb Street (formerly King Manor) stop at the southern edge of Bridgeport Borough. From there it would go along a land based (albeit I think with mostly elevated track) ROW along demarcated path next to PECO-owned super-elevated power distribution wires toward Henderson Road. I think the first new stop is marked out to be nearby a smallish strip shopping center that includes a Giant supermarket and a Wendys fast food restaurant.

      And then the routing does more or less abut the back edge of some nearby residences and then goes along a decent stretch of the PA Turnpike to cross over DeKalb Pike (Route 202) and then crosses over the Turnpike itself to align itself with most of Mall Blvd (which more or less runs along between Costco, a few hotels along Mall Blvd, the Toys ‘R’ Us, and LA Fitness as well as the back edge of the King of Prussia Plaza). From Mall Blvd, I guess it does another Turnpike crossover toward First Ave to run down toward the Valley Forge Casino.

      My concern is that there’s no allocation for any stops within a reasonable distance close by the shopping centers along DeKalb Pike in King of Prussia and the routing doesn’t extend out to Gulph Road to possibly allow for a stop nearby the Wegmans.

      Oh well, I guess we will eventually find out if this project ever gets finished at all…

  4. To respond to a few comments (along with a bit of limited bloviating):

    As Jefferson noted, the spur will come off the existing NHSL trunk (effectively the former P&W line) and head west toward the Mall. Per various presentations, it’s anticipated that the basic service pattern would be
    (a) direct runs from 69th Street ending alternately at the Mall or the Norristown Transportation Center
    (b) possible “tripper” or shuttle service from Norristown to the Mall

    In other words, despite the nay-sayers’ stories, there will not be any need for riders to go to Norristown and then double back to the Mall. For people heading to the Mall, the spur cuts their current three-seat ride to two by eliminating the notoriously unreliable bus connection at Gulph Mills. For Norristown riders, nothing changes. For all parties, the existing transfer between the El and NHSL at 69th Street will also be unchanged. While unfortunately there is no possibility the two lines could ever have a physical connection, the transfer there is no more inconvenient than the El – BSS connection at City Hall or going from the Red to the Blue line on Washington’s Metro. It’s been used by thousands of people daily since the early 1900s.

    Some of us have asked about Wissahickon at the meetings. At this point SEPTA is -not- intending to strand current riders but on the other hand they have not figured out an alternative that would avoid doubling back. IF they were less constipated about fares I imagine they could sell special tickets that would allow people to take the Norristown RRD line and transfer to the NHSL shuttle at no extra charge, but who knows?

    The lack of service along Gulph Road is a case of choosing the “least worst” option. I’ve pursued the whys and wherefores with several planners, and the story is that first, there’s only enough money for one arm of the spur rather than building a loop back to the Mall. Second, the developers of the Village at Valley Forge have been allowed to build with zero thought for TOD, which is the fault of both the builders and local officials rather than SEPTA. Third, First Avenue will be getting a makeover that by contrast will be zoned for TOD and (one hopes) integrated with the extension.

    That said, I also share the concerns about the lack of service along 202 but it’s been clear from the beginning that neither of the options (an overhead guideway or creating a rail median at grade) would have enough public or political support. Perhaps IF the line had been built earlier its routing could have been better-integrated into DeKalb Pike but we’re now paying the costs of decades of inaction.

    My 2¢ about the concerns of the residents who may be affected near the Turnpike is that they are valid, but both sides have handled them very badly. SEPTA lit the fuse by presenting a CG rendering of the viaduct shoehorned in between the Turnpike sound barrier and several back yards even though, per senior manager Liz Smith, its final positioning is far from being settled. The residents did their case no favors by shouting, threatening, and making long and sometimes incoherent statements in opposition. The fact is BOTH groups need to take a deep breath.

  5. To respond to a few comments (along with a bit of limited bloviating):

    As Jefferson noted, the spur will come off the existing NHSL trunk (effectively the former P&W line) and head west toward the Mall. Per various presentations, it’s anticipated that the basic service pattern would be
    (a) direct runs from 69th Street ending alternately at the Mall or the Norristown Transportation Center
    (b) possible “tripper” or shuttle service from Norristown to the Mall

    In other words, despite the nay-sayers’ stories, there will not be any need for riders to go to Norristown and then double back to the Mall. For people heading to the Mall, the spur cuts their current three-seat ride to two by eliminating the notoriously unreliable bus connection at Gulph Mills. For Norristown riders, nothing changes. For all parties, the existing transfer between the El and NHSL at 69th Street will also be unchanged. While unfortunately there is no possibility the two lines could ever have a physical connection, the transfer there is no more inconvenient than the El – BSS connection at City Hall or going from the Red to the Blue line on Washington’s Metro. It’s been used by thousands of people daily since the early 1900s.

    Some of us have asked about Wissahickon at the meetings. At this point SEPTA is -not- intending to strand current riders but on the other hand they have not figured out an alternative that would avoid doubling back. IF they were less constipated about fares I imagine they could sell special tickets that would allow people to take the Norristown RRD line and transfer to the NHSL shuttle at no extra charge, but who knows?

    The lack of service along Gulph Road is a case of choosing the “least worst” option. I’ve pursued the whys and wherefores with several planners, and the story is that first, there’s only enough money for one arm of the spur rather than building a loop back to the Mall. Second, the developers of the Village at Valley Forge have been allowed to build with zero thought for TOD, which is the fault of both the builders and local officials rather than SEPTA. Third, First Avenue will be getting a makeover that by contrast will be zoned for TOD and (one hopes) integrated with the extension.

    That said, I also share the concerns about the lack of service along 202 but it’s been clear from the beginning that neither of the options (an overhead guideway or creating a rail median at grade) would have enough public or political support. Perhaps IF the line had been built earlier its routing could have been better-integrated into DeKalb Pike but we’re now paying the costs of decades of inaction.

    My 2¢ about the concerns of the residents who may be affected near the Turnpike is that they are valid, but both sides have handled them very badly. SEPTA lit the fuse by presenting a CG rendering of the viaduct shoehorned in between the Turnpike sound barrier and several back yards even though, per senior manager Liz Smith, its final positioning is far from being settled. The residents did their case no favors by shouting, threatening, and making long and sometimes incoherent statements in opposition. The fact is BOTH groups need to take a deep breath.

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