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.

Trains are better than buses

There is a part of me that wishes that the sentence that makes up the subject line of this post wasn’t true, but in many ways it is objective reality.  Because people prefer to ride trains over buses, as an almost universally revealed sentiment.  Of course, people still ride buses, even when given a direct choice between the two modes, but that choice is usually driven by a confounding factor: the bus is cheaper, or closer, or cleaner, or accessible, or takes a more direct path, or runs more often.  But the person standing at the corner of Broad and Allegheny and going to jury duty at City Hall who chooses to take the 4 or 16 bus is a rare person indeed.

Trains are also good policy: 

  1. Trains can be powered by electricity, which can be generated from any number of sources and is priced stably, instead of diesel fuel which is increasingly expensive and subject to wild price swings based on world events.  (It worth noting that SEPTA, despite being located near the heart of the Northeastern US natural gas boom/glut, has studied adopting CNG as a bus fuel and has not found any savings to be had over diesel-electric hybrids.)
  2. Trains scale better than buses.  Each traincar can hold more people than a bus, and trains can be run at long lengths and at higher frequencies than buses.  The number of buses required to fully replace the capacity of a full subway line at rush hour frequencies exceeds one per minute.  Every bus requires a driver, and skilled human workers cost scarce money.  Six-car subway trains are operated by lone motormen on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, and Regional Rail trains only require an engineer and a conductor, although longer trains have assistant conductors for revenue collection purposes.
  3. Trains are not subject to traffic conditions, nor do they contribute to congestion, which is a critical advantage to anyone who has found themselves caught in Center City or on the Schuylkill at rush hour.
  4. Trains are physically durable objects.  The surviving Silverliner II Regional Rail cars were retired this year; they had been originally delivered in 1963.  Running a bus for 30 years, much less 49, is an act of insanity almost on the level of wearing a Tony Romo jersey to an Eagles game.

The main problems with trains are the lack of flexibility (once the tracks are in one location, they don’t move, ever, even when travel patterns change) and the high costs of startup capital required to build rail lines in the first place, orders of magnitude over running buses over pre-existing streets.  This is not to entirely dismiss other problems like accessibility, but those are the main reasons we don’t have more rail lines than we do.  But, as I laid out in my basic thesis, we get to reap the benefits of many generations of rail investment, and generally do not need to find the hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars to build new lines (although there are obvious candidates should SEPTA ever chance upon a stray billion).

What trips SEPTA up, as it tries to exercise effective stewardship over this legacy, is a lack of institutional flexibility.  It is not used to being anything other than an agency with an unstated mission of managed decline.  Its internal culture does not encourage experimentation and innovation.  As an example, bus routes make curious detours or stop just short of major destinations because that’s where the old streetcar lines that the buses replaced used to run, despite the buses being advertised as not being tied to the fixed routing of the street trackage.  SEPTA is a multimodal agency, and does better in its multimodality than many comparable agencies, but it must do even better.

The primary low hanging fruit for improving SEPTA is comprehensive fare reform.  SEPTA’s fare system is notoriously complex, but it creates many unhelpful incentives.  The most obvious is the very high ($1.00) cash transfer fare, which incentivizes people to take long bus rides to and from their destinations, instead of changing to a subway train and only using the bus as a feeder.  Other problems include the low service frequencies on Regional Rail, and the high fares to be found outside the traditional peak-hour-peak-direction service, a facet that has seen negative progress in the last decade.  The New Payment Technologies project under way at SEPTA is an excellent opportunity to try new approaches to fare policy, an opportunity SEPTA shows no signs of wanting to take advantage of.  This subject can (and will) be the focus of an entire series of posts.

One final note on the steel wheel vs. rubber tires issue: Philadelphia was once a city built around its streetcar lines.  For the most part, those lines are no longer with us, having been replaced by buses.  While that loss is a major tragedy (and an unpunished crime), it’s sadly the case that restoring those losses is not a wise use of scarce transit capital funding.  Even when the rails are mostly intact, as on Route 23, it is my position that streetcars compatible with Philadelphia loading gauge are not a superior enough option to warrant the spending.  Again, this will be a future focus on this blog, with particular attention given to the remaining trolley lines in West Philadelphia, on Girard Avenue, and in Delaware County, and to the particular problems of Route 23 as one of the longest and most heavily used lines in the system.

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.

Basic Thesis: Philadelphia Maneto

Philadelphia is by no means the perfect urban form, and it has a lot of political handicaps to overcome, some self-inflicted and some imposed from outside.  But it has a lot going for it, and a lot of that includes legacy infrastructure from the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads, and the PRT/PTC and Red Arrow Lines.  This city would not be nearly as livable if we didn’t have the physical remnants of Alexander Cassatt’s and Merritt Taylor’s corporate empires scattered everywhere.  In fact, that’s the only way, in the long term, to deal with a far-flung and slowly growing city of 1.5 million, in the heart of a 5.8 million person metropolitan region (and a 50+ million megalopolitan region).   The 20th Century American dalliance with roads and the automobile is souring, and here we cannot accommodate the scale of volume that we are already attempting.  Bicycles are a good last-mile solution, but don’t scale to the distances we often travel in our daily lives (a problem not as prevalent in more compact cities like Portland or Boston).

In short: we have trains, and thank goodness, because we’re going to need them.

printf(“Hello, world”)

I grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs. I first moved to the Philadelphia area in 2000 to attend Swarthmore College, and I immediately fell in love with this city. I’ve lived nine of the last twelve years in Swarthmore, University City, Roxborough, and Point Breeze/Newbold, and have accumulated some opinions in that time as a “New Philadelphian”. I also fell in love with getting around Philadelphia and its suburbs without a car. In my time away from the Delaware Valley, I lived in New York and Las Vegas, which reinforced the love of walkable and transit-oriented places from both extremes.

I’ve been posting things I’ve learned and things I’ve come to believe, in various corners of the internet, for quite some time now. I’ve decided it’s time to get more serious about doing that, so I’m starting this blog to collect everything in one place. As I shout, please shout back at me; I like discussion, and even if I don’t personally reply to every comment, I liked reading yours.