May the odds be ever in your favor: Philadelphia’s Second Casino

Two nights ago, I went to an open house hosted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, showcasing the six proposals for the second Philadelphia casino license. That license has been up for grabs since the collapse of the South Philadelphia Foxwoods proposal slated for the Delaware waterfront at Reed Street. Casinos in Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia neighborhoods, are a controversial subject, but one I have a personal and professional interest in. But since this is not my personal blog, things like which casino operator would be best for me, or the relative merits of legalized gambling regimes, are far off topic.  Fortunately, this process is providing ample grist for transportation nerds and urbanist advocates as well as professional gamblers.

First, a brief aside about who should care about casino transportation. There are, broadly speaking, three categories of people in a casino: workers, casual visitors, and frequent visitors. Casinos are traditionally designed around catering to the needs of the frequent visitors, and while I can attest to that bias being flattering on occasion, it’s not remotely optimal when it comes to transportation planning. Workers and casual visitors will make up the vast majority of the people who will arrive and leave on any given day, and the more prosocial the casino is designed to be, the more overwhelmingly true this will be. In response to this, the industry norm is to oversupply a casino with parking, and to treat parking as a loss leader. Needless to say, such an approach is potentially disastrous in a dense urban environment like Philadelphia. Context is not merely important; context is everything.
Continue reading May the odds be ever in your favor: Philadelphia’s Second Casino

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The Pennsylvanian lives

Late breaking news tonight, that the Amtrak Pennsylvanian, which serves New York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and intermediate points, will continue to run past October of this year.  That is when PRIIA ’08 mandates that all Amtrak routes shorter than 750 miles either receive state support, or be removed from the national network.  The only two routes that America’s Railroad had yet to find funding agreements for were the Pennsylvanian and the Hoosier State between Chicago and Indianapolis; all indications out of Indiana are that the state government is implacably hostile to any support of Amtrak, and that the Hoosier State will die.  

The Pennsylvanian is the only Amtrak train that serves the cities of western Pennsylvania between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, including Altoona and Johnstown, along the former main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

No details of the agreement are available, (only a laconic press release from Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman), but given that the state funding formula is fixed., we can only presume that the Governor and his Transportation Secretary have agreed to include a Pennsylvanian line item in the PennDOT budgeting process.  I’ll update here with the details as they become available.

In the first 24 hours, news venues are only saying that the Corbett administration is promising to include $3.8 million of the $5.7 million Amtrak was asking in the next budget, but are giving no details as to how this is adequate for Amtrak. I am going to continue to keep an eye on this, and hopefully further details will emerge.

Catching up, and the incoming storm

I’ve been out of town for the last three weeks, and it’s been quite busy in the Delaware Valley. To recap:

  • The big news is SEPTA holding the first public meetings for the newest incarnation of the King of Prussia Rail project. With the KoP Business Improvement District as co-sponsors and motivating forces, this latest version of the #1 item on the regional wishlist looks much more likely to succeed than its predecessors, if for no other reason than that this time, it’s being investigated as a standalone project on its own merits. The public presentation materials are online at http://kingofprussiarail.com/virtualmeeting.html; the current focus is on alignment alternatives between the existing Norristown High Speed Line and the Mall complex.
  • New SEPTA timetables are out, and the changeover to the new Regional Rail schedules will take place this Sunday, February 10th. The Transit Division will follow suit on the February 17th and 18th.
  • In the ongoing fights against petty corruption and car culture, nine current and former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were indicted on charges related to ticket-fixing. With all but one of the active judges indicted and therefore automatically suspended without pay, the State Senate is considering legislation to abolish the court entirely, and fold responsibility into the Municipal Court docket. If the end of widespread ticket fixing improves the safety of our streets, we are very much in favor of these developments (in addition to corrupt city officials getting nailed to the wall, which is its own reward).
  • A gas leak at Fern Rock TC disrupted Broad Street Subway, bus, and Regional Rail service near the end of Wednesday morning’s rush hour. SEPTA’s ticktock and apology to disrupted riders was up on septa.org by the next morning, and is an exemplar of the genre. We applaud the clear communication with riders, which is, ah, traditionally lacking at SEPTA. May the trend continue.
  • An approaching winter storm today and tomorrow has yet to produce any SEPTA service disruptions, but NJT is cross-honoring bus, rail, and light rail fares today and tomorrow. Given that the Philadelphia area is only expected to get about 4-6 inches of snow, while New York gets 12″ and Boston gets 30″+, expect local transit to remain relatively undisrupted, especially compared to our neighbors to the northeast (best of luck to them!). Monitor SEPTA.org, RidePatco.org, NJTransit.com, and the Twitter feeds for service advisories. Be especially careful around slippery platform edges, consider leaving work early today if possible, to get out ahead of the storm’s arrival, and plan ahead in case you need to seek alternate transportation. Stay safe out there!

The political problem of Philadelphia

Today’s post isn’t directly transportation-focused. It’s about the politics that comprises the backdrop our struggles take place against. I’m sure others have said what I have to say with more eloquence and sobriety, but this is my version, and if I’m going to have to refer to it in the future, I ought to spell it all out at least once.

The big problem with being Philadelphia is being Philadelphia. Continue reading The political problem of Philadelphia

11th hour Fiscal Deal restores transit tax benefit for suburban riders

As noted already by David Alpert and Ben Kabak, the agreement passed yesterday to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” restores a tax benefit to transit commuters that had expired at the beginning of 2012. Transit riders will be able to pay $240 per month in pre-tax dollars, saving them and their employers money. This is up from the $125 per month that was the maximum throughout 2012, after Congress failed to renew the benefit, and the $230 per month maximum that was in place 2009-2011; it restores parity with the parking benefit, which went up from $230 to $240 at the beginning of 2012. Unfortunately, the restoration is only in place for 2013, and extending it further is the responsibility of the 113th Congress; a dismaying prospect given the record of the 112th.

The new benefit is a huge benefit for SEPTA Regional Rail riders, virtually all of whom have been forced by their benefit managers to pay the first $125 with their benefit cards and the rest out of pocket for the last year. $240 is enough to pay for any monthly pass SEPTA offers. It will also cover NJT’s Atlantic City Line out to Hammonton, or an NJT River Line + PATCO or PATCO + SEPTA City Transit daily commute, or a monthly pass on Amtrak’s Keystone Service from Downingtown to Center City. Basically, this is a huge win for responsible suburban commuters to Center City, and a good foot forward to start 2013.

And one last note: if you’re interested in signing up for this benefit, as a commuter or as an employer, DVRPC’s program has changed its name from TransitChek to RideECO.

Bridgeport Viaduct: the canary in the capital funding coalmine

I was out of town on business these last two weeks, and plenty has been going down in my absence which I’ll be playing catch-up on, but the really big news is SEPTA’s announcement that it will be closing the Bridgeport Viaduct next summer due to deteriorating safety conditions.

The Bridgeport Viaduct is the Norristown High Speed Line’s single-track approach across the Schuylkill River between Bridgeport and Norristown. SEPTA is concerned about rotting ties and structural corrosion, and estimates that the 100-foot-high bridge needs $30 million in total work; $30 million that SEPTA does not have. SEPTA’s capital funding has been inadequate for decades, now, and now a major piece of infrastructure is on the brink of failure due to the inability of Harrisburg and Washington to properly fund SEPTA’s capital needs, or to arrange other funding sources as was done for NPT. Governor Corbett has now been in office over 700 days, with no plan yet put forward for funding any of the Commonwealth’s urgent transportation needs, transit or highway, despite the collapse of the Act 44 regime created in the waning days of the Rendell Administration. This is a disgrace, and a failure of democracy that this state of affairs has been allowed to persist.

And of course, SEPTA’s actual capital spending is often not within its own control. SEPTA’s main priority is the Federally-mandated Positive Train Control system, due by 2015, without which it cannot legally run the Regional Rail system. Also, it’s easier for SEPTA to get earmarked funding for a glitzy, visible project (like the renovation of Wayne Junction station), and much, much harder to get more system-critical repair and back-end improvements funded (like the replacement of electrical equipment at the adjacent Wayne Junction substation). Politicians love ribbon-cutting photo ops, and it’s easier to arrange one of those at a new platform than a replacement high voltage transformer. So, there has been something of a silent race on for the first major failure due to institutional neglect. Bridgeport Viaduct has won that dubious prize, over stiff competition from the Crum Creek bridge on the Media Elwyn Line (which has already failed once in 1986; the stone stanchions of the older structure are still visible in the woods adjacent to my alma mater) and various critical parts of the ex-Reading electrical system.

Obviously, the connections to Regional Rail and Frontier Division buses at Norristown make up a large chunk of the NHSL’s ridership. The bustitution of the segment will be a hardship even if work begins immediately; SEPTA estimates that the Viaduct will be out for four months at minimum. With any luck, SEPTA’s splashy pronouncement of doom can shake some loose change out of Harrisburg or the delegation in Washington, but such brinksmanship really ought not to be necessary in a functional society. This maintenance was a predictable expense; the bridge is 101 years old. If SEPTA had a predictable adequate funding source and the ability to set reasonable spending priorities, we would not be having this conversation. But it doesn’t, and we are. May it please, please be for the last time.

A Brief Aside: the Kenyatta Johnson Land Grab Bill

I live at approximately Ground Zero of one of the most vitriolic debates over urban gentrification in America: Point Breeze, Philadelphia.  I hope to not write very much about it here, because I want this to be a blog primarily focussed on transportation.  But of course, transportation and land use are two sides of the same coin; how our society and economy arrange themselves in the physical world.  So I can’t ignore what’s going on outside my own door completely without being guilty of cowardice.  Speaking of cowardice, allow me to introduce you to my District Councillor, Kenyatta Johnson, and his Land Grab Bill that passed the City Council yesterday on a vote of 14-0.

You see, Councillor Johnson sees the rapid influx of middle-class professionals to Point Breeze as a political threat, as they are not likely to respect the rules of the Philadelphia political establishment that he has known all his life.  He’s in his freshman term, winning his primary to succeed longtime Council fixture Anna Verna by 68 votes.  (In the City of Philadelphia, which is >80% Democratic, the primary is more important in local elections than the General Election.)  So, in addition to getting his District immediately regerrymandered in his favor, he has decided to attack the political problem of gentrification at the source: blight preservation.

More background: Philadelphia is a huge city, and quite a lot of business comes before Council.  One mechanism its leaders have evolved to handle this is Councilmanic Privilege.  In general, any bill that affects only one district that has the support of its Councillor will be passed without opposition, on the assumption that the District Councillor is most familiar with the area and knows what’s best for it.  The result of this practice is that each of the ten District Councillors wields vast power, like a mini-mayor, or more accurately, a liege-lord over a fiefdom.  Much of the petty corruption that surrounds the City Council involves  Councilmanic Privilege being invoked for a political quid pro quo

So Councilman Johnson has passed his bill issued his decree, which deals with the rising home values of Point Breeze by seizing privately-owned vacant lots by eminent domain.  In practice, these will join the 311 lots the City already owns in the neighborhood, and will remain empty while continuing to be a blighting, degrading influence, while at the same time restricting private development.  Of course, housing prices are going up precisely because the housing supply is so restricted, by zoning laws that restrict density and practices that create endless legal challenges and delays.  Those restrictions are citywide, and mean that, for instance, the middle class can no longer find developable land in Graduate Hospital, the previously-blighted-now-gentrified neighborhood to our north, because there is no more room to build on.  So people priced out of Graduate Hospital are now looking to Point Breeze north of Wharton Street, where Councilman Johnson is now trying to keep them out (and butter up his most radical constituents, who would prefer the neighborhood remain poor, blighted and violent) by taking land off the market.

At least, the scope of this bill has been greatly reduced, in part because some landowners scrambled to break ground (to irrefutably prove their intention to build), instead of waiting for the spring construction season.  Those property owners are now out increased costs, a tax imposed by the government through extortion, not law.  But that leaves the 17 remaining parcel owners to fight it out with the City and the PRA over what price they will be forced to sell for, and the rest of us to watch our rents rise.

For a more comprehensive look at the Kenyatta Johnson Land Grab Bill of 2012, I suggest perusing the archives over at our friend Philadelinquency.

To bring this back around to transportation, I mentioned that one factor driving the influx of newcomers and rise in property values is the shortage of housing available in other neighborhoods in Greater Center City and South Philadelphia.  The imbalance between where the housing demand is (unevenly distributed, mostly based on commutes to Center City or University City) and where the supply is (outside of Center City, mostly evenly distributed across endless expanses of 2-story and 3-story rowhouse neighborhoods) causes a lot of economic imbalance, social injustice, and deadweight loss.   So, I propose the following change:

  • The zoning code should be amended to remove all restrictions on building height on blocks that lie in whole or in part within 750 feet of a Broad Street Line or Market Frankford Line entrance.

A radical change, but it would allow the majority of most neighborhoods to retain their single-family lowrise form, while focusing development where the existing infrastructure can best support it, and letting the market set the pace of redevelopment.  And obviously the precise distance in feet is subject to debate, but I tried to size it just longer than one average block.

There are subjects where I’m a conservative, like individual property rights, and subjects where I’m a radical, like zoning.  Today’s post is a good mix of both.

One last thing: not everything that happened at yesterday’s Council meeting was terrible.  Councillor Mark Squilla‘s Complete Streets legislation, which is shaping up to be some of the best of its kind in the nation, passed a procedural vote and is likely to sail through next month.