What To Do With The City Branch: Return It To Transit As Light Rail

 

Editor’s Note: On May 25th, we reported that the Community Design Collaborative had awarded a service grant to ViaductGreene, the group who has presented a vision of a single, connected linear park comprised of the above ground Reading Viaduct and the submerged railbed (the City Branch, one of the oldest railways in the US) that runs west along Pennsylvania Avenue behind the Barnes Museum. That report produced a flurry of comments calling the idea into question. Most of the commenters hoped to see the City Branch returned to passenger rail service, connecting the transit juggernaut near City Hall with the less-than-perfectly-served Art Museum and Fairmount Park. Given the contentiousness of the response, we asked proponents of each side to make a case. What follows here is a vision for light rail by Hidden City Daily contributor Stephen Stofka. Click HERE for Paul vanMeter’s case for creating a linear park.

Reading Crusader model from Reading Terminal Market display | Photo: website Found Connections

The ViaductGreene proposal being entertained is for a sunken linear park between the Rodin Museum and 13th Street, where it would meet the Reading Viaduct (at Noble). This proposal has proved controversial. In fact, the majority of readers who commented on the Hidden City report announcing a planning grant for the linear park were strongly opposed to the idea.

What are its problems?

First off, it doesn’t fill an immediate need for parkland, the way the Reading Viaduct does. The Callowhill neighborhood doesn’t have any parks. By contrast, the small Matthias Baldwin Park at 19th and Hamilton Streets offers a centrally-located neighborhood park for the neighborhood west of Broad. Green space is further augmented by the Community College of Philadelphia’s main campus, Logan Square, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Spring Garden Greenway | Image: Student work from John Stewardson Memorial Fellowship in Architecture

Is there a need for a linear park (bike trail) here? The Spring Garden Greenway is in advanced design stages, and will offer a useful separated river-to-river bike path. The City Branch Cut and Reading Viaduct put together, by contrast, only extend to 9th St. and would have to connect with the Spring Garden Greenway to make it to the Delaware.

So, if the neighborhood west of Broad already has adequate park access, and a bikeway will be mirroring the City Branch cut a mere 500 feet to the north, what is the purpose of this park?

Photo: Peter Woodall

Our second concern is safety. Remember our last experience with a sunken park, the just bulldozed Dilworth Plaza? The sunken part of the plaza was avoided, shunned: it became a homeless encampment and outdoor latrine. So shunned was it that even when Occupy Philly was out in full force, none of its encampment ventured into it. And we decided it wasn’t worth it—-we’re getting rid of it as a sunken public space, turning it instead into a waiting area.

We’ve proven that sunken parks aren’t really a good idea—-they don’t feel safe or clean—-so why are we pursuing a new one? And again, this proposal doesn’t bring anything new to the area that isn’t already there or being addressed.

Access is also a major consideration when dealing with sunken parks. How to get down safely and easily? Granted, it also is with elevated parks, but safety and cleanliness are more pressing concerns with sunken ones.

So we have three major issues the City Branch would have to deal with: (a) lack of clear purpose and reason for being, apart from its own novelty; (b) strong concerns about safety and concomitant cleanliness; and (c) concerns about overly circuitous and indirect access. Of these, the first is the most insistent and persistent—-why go there if, outside of its novelty value, there’s nothing to see or do there you can’t already do nearby? It’s mostly because of these reasons so many people think ViaductGreene’s proposal is just a bad idea.

Dense Fairmount neighborhood

What are the alternatives? Most people think that putting rail into the City Branch cut is a much better idea. There’s a clear purpose—-the route parallels Center City west of Broad and can then angle into it through Callowhill. It links destinations, such as the Barnes, Rodin, Art Museum, and (possibly) the Zoo, and at the same time, links highly-walkable neighborhoods like Fairmount and Spring Garden. The areas it passes through are rapidly growing—-the neighborhood west of Broad added some 20 percent to its population in the last decade, and Callowhill’s population doubled. In other words, it goes somewhere and picks people up on the way there.

The major strength of any rail proposal is the fact the City Branch cut is already completely grade-separated. That means that there are no railroad crossings at all along it, and it means rail equipment can get up to its full speed there. The major disadvantage for such service, however, is that it runs through what were once some rather underbuilt and disinvested neighborhoods. This decline bottomed out in the late 1990s and early 2000s—-and, as has been pointed out, the area this branch traverses is growing.

The elegance of a rail line here is that it would be potentially cheap to build: around $200 million, even less with strong value-engineering. For light rail, a connection to the route 15 trolley can be made, linking the line to the Zoo, and to the 11th-12th Street trolley tracks, connecting into Center City via Chinatown and Market East. On the east end, a connection to the Ridge Spur is viable, with a negligible amount of cut-and-cover tunneling along Noble Street for the same coin—-and this also offers the option of extending such a line north, along 33rd Street through Strawberry Mansion up to East Falls and possibly even Roxborough. Between the destinations, the neighborhoods, and the ability to link the area northwest of Center City with the latter’s eastern half, this route would have extremely high ridership. It’s a perfect starter line, getting it done for less.

Granary Condos, now under construction | Rendering: Pearl Properties

This same inexpensiveness, coupled with high ridership, makes it a superior rail project even vis-à-vis other worthy ones, such as the Navy Yard extension of the Broad Street Subway. Unlike that proposal, much of the infrastructure already exists, and linking it up would be the primary goal of the project; the Navy Yard Extension needs an entirely new “wet” tunnel (meaning it would be under the water table), necessitating high construction and maintenance costs for what will be, until the Navy Yard has largely filled in, rather modest ridership. By contrast, the City Branch and its connections are all, or nearly all, dry cuts and tunnels, with significantly lower long-term maintenance.

These advantages—-filling a clear transit need, and doing so quickly and inexpensively-—are highly appealing, In fact, this project can be done so quickly it is almost shovel-ready as-is—just pick the mode and go. The Navy Yard project, by contrast, would still not be out of its technical feasibility studies by the time this one is done. Work on it, by all means, but don’t squander a golden goose such as the City Branch!

The $200 million budgetary figure leads me to another cost consideration: it is cheaper than ViaductGreene’s proposal. How so, you ask? Well, railroad rights-of-way do tend to need environmental cleanup before they can be made ready for a park. New York’s High Line had that problem, as does the Reading Viaduct. These cleanup costs are a money pit. By the time the roadbed can be made ready for a park use, some $300 million will already be spent. Yes, the cleanup costs associated with a park conversion alone are a third more than a reasonable total budget for rail restoration. A rail project, naturally, doesn’t need to worry about such extensive environmental concerns because the publicly-accessible parts of the right-of-way are either elevated above or capped over.

The Thinker at the Rodin Museum, contemplating this idea | Photo: J. Smith for GPTMC

So, with the advantages of low cost, potentially high ridership, and fast realization, why wait? Shouldn’t we already have a strong rail proposal for the City Branch?

How are we going to pay for it? The reason I am adamant about strong value-engineering is because the costs are already low enough that, if they are trimmed down a bit, the project can qualify for the federal Department of Transportation Small Starts grant program. And we can look for city, state, and private support. This will, of course, take time.

But now let’s flip the funding question on its head: ViaductGreene only has a preliminary planning grant. How do they propose to pay for their project? Half the High Line’s budget was privately raised-—and that was with the advantages of transportation obsolescence and near-unanimous community support. The usual sources can only go so far, especially with showpieces like this kind of park.

Didn’t SEPTA study returning rail to the City Branch before? Yes—back around 2002. But as the Census clearly shows, context has changed. Biases inherent in ridership modeling back then have been identified and are being weeded out. With a strong enough, frequent enough service, more modern ridership projections suggest this line would be quite busy—a projection to aim for would be about a thousand riders per station.

Who will advocate for the vision? That’s the hardest question of all. Rail advocacy for the City Branch has existed consistently for several years, but has been much more nebulous, mostly consisting of conversational agreements. ViaductGreene has only existed for about a year, and mostly in conversation with other Reading Viaduct proponents. Rail advocates, even those in on the Viaduct conversation, thought that their City Branch cut proposal was more silly than serious, a way of differentiating themselves from other Viaduct advocacy groups. It’s only in the past few weeks that the City Branch cut greenway has been advanced as a serious proposal, and moving far faster than they expected.

Much of this conversation has been taking place on Philadelphia Speaks here. If you want to make your voice heard, we are looking for help, and would value any sort of skill you bring to the table. Let’s get enough voices together, and we can start working on a serious proposal of our own.

About the author

I'm interested in the urban form, and the way we change it. I look at architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city. With a B.A. in Geography and Urban Studies from Temple University, I find myself interested in a full-time position. If you are interested in my work, just let me know!



51 Comments


  1. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

  2. I was never really clear where the City Branch was, but I looked at a map today and figured it out:

    http://goo.gl/maps/Ztpo

    This would be a great place to add a new transit line to serve the Art Museum, Fairmount and other neighborhoods north of Center City. VanMeter says that the best light rail lines are at-grade, but what about the Subway-Surface lines right here in Philadelphia? That is light rail, and it’s totally underground.

    I’m a little confused about how this would connect to Center City. Would it continue along Noble Street to the 11th & 12th Street trolley line, and if so, how far would south would it go? It seems like you couldn’t have a terminus without affecting traffic on one of the east-west streets. Or how would you continue it along the Broad-Ridge spur? Would it be at grade, or would it involve the existing subway?

    • The Subway-Surface trolley lines are both underground and–mostly–at grade–traditional streetcars.

    • There are two different solutions.

      (1) If light rail is pursued, utilizing the former 23 tracks along 11th and 12th would access Center City, reaching all the way down to a turnback loop at Bainbridge. The rails have been disused for 20 years, however, and would have to be rebuilt.
      (2) The terminus of the City Branch–its junction with the Reading Viaduct–is at 13th and Noble, a mere two blocks away from the corner of Ridge and Noble. A subway that already exists runs under Ridge, and terminates at 8th and Market, where it has a junction with the El and PATCO. Linking this subway with the City Branch would be somewhat more expensive, but would provide better service and could then be extended northward (along 33rd) and southbound (along 8th). This has always been my preferred idea, and I call it a “light metro”.

      By the way, I agreed that that light rail comment pretty much killed all his credibility. For more examples of grade-separated light rail, we only have to look at Boston, Frisco, L.A., Seattle, St. Louis, Newark, and (I think) Denver. Historical trolley tunnels also exist in Providence, Rochester, D.C., and other cities.

      • The important thing to remember is that the different variations of “light rail” are not discrete options; they exist on a continuum. “Light rail” includes everything street running light rail vehicles (15 trolley) to fully-grade separated high-speed service (Norristown High Speed Line).

        This is light rails advantage – mixing modes based on the context. We see this with our own Subway-Service lines (as well as the Green Lines in Boston and MUNI in San Fran): a network of streetcar lines collects people from a range of neighborhoods and brings the services together into a higher-speed higher-capacity transit tunnel. You then see good coverage in the neighborhoods, and high-quality service along an important corridor.

        • –Which the Boston, Frisco, and St. Louis examples all clearly show.

          Something we must understand about transportation planning as a whole, though, is that the highest ridership usually goes hand-in-hand with the greatest degree of running-way segregation–but such segregation is extremely expensive. Entirely segregated systems tend to be limited both in size and scope.

          Light rail is essentially a compromise, utilizing segregated corridors when necessary or available, and accomplishing the rest on running-way separated or mixed-traffic routes. San Francisco’s trolleys and Boston’s Green Line are both excellent examples of this.

          The point that needs to be made here is that one of the highest costs associated with mass transit–preparing a grade-separated ROW–has already been borne. It’s not a bright idea to leave it fallow; less so to actively deconstruct our past efforts when we know a need’s still there.

      • Seriously, if both Boston and Philadelphia aren’t good examples of how subway-surface lines can operate successfully, I dunno what is.

        (Typo fixed–Ed.)

  3. I absolutely love the idea of making the Reading above-ground line a park, but I’ve wanted trains to run in the city branch for years. It is sad how underserved by rail the area is, and it’d be so great to see it come back.

  4. I was so shocked to see ViaductGreene receive the go ahead in the first place. Is there an organization in place to advocate restoring the City Branch?

    There is so much growth opportunity in this line, especially if it connects to further parts of NW Philly and can generate more transit activity in Callowhill. Ripping up these tracks would ruin so much potential.

    • Well, there should be TWO organizations advocating it: SEPTA and the Center City District. And clearly they’re not.

      Seriously, though, if such an organization existed we would probably know of it from this article or from Philadelphia Speaks thread. In other words, it’s time for us to get crackin’.

    • There are no tracks there. Conrail scrapped the rails in 1985.

  5. The dodge that was the previous City Branch transit route SEPTA proposed a few years back was sad and half-realized. I attended a community meeting for that and left sad. That proposal was linked in every possible way to their ill-fated Schuylkill Valley Metro and was symptomatic of the agency’s general inability to visualize.

    I live near and have worked in Fairmount for several years. One curious aspect of that neighborhood is how indirect transit connections feel to other parts of the city. The Art Museum is geographically closer to 30th Street Station than City Hall is but there’s no direct way to get between the two via transit. That part of Philadelphia, north of The Parkway approaching the Temple area is swelling with long-needed revitalization. Other neighborhoods within Center City’s gravity that have seen similar growth – along the river wards, parts of West/Southwest Philadelphia and South Philadelphia, have been fortunate to be near or along rail routes directly into Center City – subways, trolleys. Areas like Fairmount and Francisville lack that the farther away from Broad Street you are. Buses, even frequent routes such as the 33, can be unreliable and the existence of infrastructure that is, in theory, ready for deployment at the very least begs serious inquiry. It calls for looking ahead a decade or two and wondering if it wouldn’t be better/cheaper to invest in the City Branch development as transit now instead of being faced with a crunch later. Would it be better to have the beginning of something that could be built upon and take advantage now rather than shoehorn something in later?

  6. I think the biggest point to make is that Philadelphia must be ambitious again. Why under-use our infrastructure? We ought to be aiming high, not settling for less-than-ideal uses of infrastructure.

  7. Without belaboring the other excellent points made above: The extant infrastructure here offers the potential for light rail to operate unimpeded by vehicular traffic–a major plus for the rail option. On the other hand, anyone who rides a bicycle knows that a flat and level route such as the Spring Garden Greenway is preferable to one that requires an ascent. This fact alone makes the City Line less than desirable as a bike route. Advantage: Transit use.

    Has anyone done an opinion poll directed at the Fairmount and Logan Square residents and businesses as to what their preference is? I am willing to bet that they would resoundingly prefer it restored to transit. As a planner, I suggest that is most prudent course of action, instead of arbitrarily picking one of two options and then going forward with a one-sided study advocating that option.

    Lastly, as for Viaduct Greene’s argument that we can ultimately restore it to transit use, why spend precious dollars building the wrong thing (submerged greenway), only to have created a constituency to keep the City Line as is (inertia is a powerful force), making it all the more difficult to restore it to transit use later?

    • As a planner, shouldn’t you be sensitive and observant to the planning process that has made the conclusions it has? There seems to be some erroneous conclusions being made that theses points have not been studied or thought about.

  8. It’s fitting Stephen Stofka’s model vision for a rail proposal along the City Branch begins with a picture of a 1947 Pennline HO scale Crusader. It sounds so simple, like stopping by the hobby shop for a few turnouts and some flextrack. “Shovel-ready as-is—just pick the mode and go,” he says. “Cheap to build: around $200 million, even less with strong value-engineering,” he says.

    Seemingly uninformed statements like “inexpensiveness, coupled with high ridership, make it a superior rail project even vis-à-vis other worthy ones” are a stinging rebuke to the process and professionalism that leads to real-world planning. These planners, like the ones involved with the Philadelphia 2035 plan are, yes, discussing “Cultural Corridor Transit,” and yes, it’s along the Parkway, and yes, I do appreciate this idea greatly. It makes me recall efficient and beautiful trams I’ve enjoyed riding throughout Europe especially…so far as a cultural corridor, Bilbao’s EuskoTram comes immediately to mind; it was such a surprise. Like all the the other great and boisterous transit places I’ve come to be more familiar with, say Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and Vienna’s Kärntner Ring, they’re all at-grade places, just like the ones served by SEPTA’s appealing Rt 15.

    Mr. Stofka is a student of urban form–he’s written extensively on these pages on the issue–”and other subtle elements that make a city a city,” yet somehow rejects a Place for its very “being, apart from its own novelty.” It’s exactly the kind of novel, historic, and connective Place ViaductGreene celebrates that makes cities cities, cities exciting, one different from the next, and well worthy of exploration.

    Steve Stofka writes of concerns about safety and cleanliness as if cities can’t create, maintain, and manage safe and clean places. This, it seems to me, underestimates this city’s seriousness in reinventing itself.

    On that issue particularly, Mr. Stofka wants it both ways: the grade to be too deep and dark and dangerous for a park and yet just right for transit riders. Exactly as Stofka states, “the major strength of any rail proposal is the fact the City Branch cut is already completely grade-separated… and it means rail equipment can get up to its full speed there,” he goes on to saying he wants to create station stops along the the right-of-way at precisely those same grade-separated locations. Then he bemoans “concerns about overly circuitous and indirect access” to those exact locations. There he has a point. The track level grade of the City Branch at the Pa Ave. tunnel’s southern side (behind the Rodin Museum) is 27′ below street level, heading East toward toward Center City it gets deeper. This wouldn’t be like any other sub-surface passenger line–most aren’t nearly as indirect. City Branch passengers are going to spend a lot of time getting to the trains.

    On cost, Mr. Stofka claims, “the elegance of a rail line here is that it would be potentially cheap to build: around $200 million, even less with strong value-engineering. For light rail, a connection to the route 15 trolley can be made, linking the line to the Zoo, and to the 11th-12th Street trolley tracks, connecting into Center City via Chinatown and Market East. On the east end, a connection to the Ridge Spur is viable, with a negligible amount of cut-and-cover tunneling along Noble Street for the same coin—-and this also offers the option of extending such a line north, along 33rd Street through Strawberry Mansion up to East Falls and possibly even Roxborough.”

    With a limited word counts comes limited explanation, but what Steve importantly leaves out is the incompatibility of SEPTA’s existing trolley and subway systems. With such expanded services will come need for substantial rebuilding of existing infrastructures and new equipment, where the “cheap to build” point becomes moot.

    Stofka goes on, stating, “well, railroad rights-of-way do tend to need environmental cleanup before they can be made ready for a park. New York’s High Line had that problem, as does the Reading Viaduct. These cleanup costs are a money pit. By the time the roadbed can be made ready for a park use, some $300 million will already be spent. Yes, the cleanup costs associated with a park conversion alone are a third more than a reasonable total budget for rail restoration. A rail project, naturally, doesn’t need to worry about such extensive environmental concerns because the publicly-accessible parts of the right-of-way are either elevated above or capped over.”

    This claim is not only inaccurate, it’s irresponsible. If Mr. Stofka has some knowledge of environmental damage that requires $300M worth of clean-up, I’d suggest he start detailing it very soon because Philadelphia has a substantial problem with ground water contamination it needs to start dealing with! $300M is a whopper of a number, even by EPA Superfund experiences.

    Critically, Mr. Stofka is misinformed on the history of the High Line. “Half the High Line’s budget was privately raised-—and that was with the advantages of transportation obsolescence and near-unanimous community support.” Transportation obsolescence? The truth is that Conrail, in it’s last years of ownership of the High Line and CSX in its early ones explored a variety of rail usages for the route including removing Manhattan’s voluminous amounts of trash. Like ViaductGreene, the High Line has been studied for transit use and just like ViaductGreene, conclusions made to not include it in any transit reuse plan. Also, like ViaductGreene, the High Line acknowledges that light rail might be beneficial to the community at a future date, and a transit system using rubber-tired vehicles with electric motors offers many of light-rail’s potential future benefits at a lower cost, and designs for reuse consider that such rubber-wheeled transit may one day be desirable; no permanent obstacles to these systems are being contemplated. Also like ViaductGreene, the strongest transportation option for the High Line was then and now remains reuse as a pedestrian corridor.

    Also like ViaductGreene, the High Line absolutely did not have “near-unanimous community support.” In fact, in 2002, the entire track was one court decision away from demolition. Mayor Giuliani and some of New York City’s most powerful developers wanted the High Line removed.

    I could go on, and on, and on. The bottom line is the bottom line. Laying rail in the City Branch cut isn’t happening anytime soon, if ever. What might be happening soon is ViaductGreene, and I’m getting back to the real work of that now.

    • The choice again of imagery at the top of the story was mine, not the writer’s.

      I want to be sure that as commenters on this issue we don’t forget that everyone involved in this discussion is well-intentioned, studied, and thoughtful on the issues that coalesce around the City Branch. We will not allow this discussion to become personal or angry, and thus I have asked both Mr. vanMeter and Mr. Stofka–and everyone else who has a point to make–to keep the arguments on the merits. But we chose to present two opposing viewpoints exactly because it isn’t clear cut–everyone ultimately wants transit to better serve this part of the city–and because for decades no one has figured out what to do with this key piece of infrastructure. Now we’ve got a conversation. Happily, everyone involved believes, as one commenter says, that Philadelphia should be ambitious about its future. –ed.

    • I’m sure that Steve will respond to your points, but just a few things in the meantime…

      1) “Steve Stofka writes of concerns about safety and cleanliness as if cities can’t create, maintain, and manage safe and clean places. This, it seems to me, underestimates this city’s seriousness in reinventing itself.”

      I think you overestimate the city’s ability to follow through on the “city’s seriousness”. The “city’s serious in reinventing itself” is entirely dependent on the City of Philadelphia’s budget and competence to maintain public spaces. You remember Dilworth, right? You’ve been to the concourase access cut along Broad east of the Municipal Services Building? Where is the money and attention going to come from?

      2) “On that issue particularly, Mr. Stofka wants it both ways: the grade to be too deep and dark and dangerous for a park and yet just right for transit riders.”

      It can absolutely go both ways. Lighting and securing a few transit stations is a much smaller task than lighting and securing the entire cut.

      3) “With a limited word counts comes limited explanation, but what Steve importantly leaves out is the incompatibility of SEPTA’s existing trolley and subway systems. With such expanded services will come need for substantial rebuilding of existing infrastructures and new equipment, where the “cheap to build” point becomes moot.”

      The incompatibility does not matter, provided you’re selecting one mode or the other. If the City Branch were built as light rail with connections to the rest of the streetcar network, then you’d build out using the trolley system’s design. If the City Branch were built as a connection to the BSL or Broad-Ridge Spur, then you’d build out to the subway system’s design. This would all be worked out during a study of the corridor.

      4) I do agree with you on the cost of environmental remediation, in that we don’t really know what it will cost. A full study of that is in order, though that makes sense after a project is selected. In any case, remediation for transit will be cheaper than remediation for a park; we just don’t know the scale of the difference.

      - – - – -

      The most important point here is that we do not know right now what the best option is. A full Alternatives Analysis, commissioned by the City or SEPTA, should be done to study the potential uses for the City Branch and make a recommendation. This needs to weigh cost and complexity against the needs of the community and the benefits of the potential improvements. (Note: Previous AAs like Schuylkill Valley Metro and the 52nd Street-to-Center City study don’t really count and the work needs to be redone. These studies are 10 or more years old at this point, and they were focused on the potential for regional travel that SVM introduced.)

      I think we all agree here that the City Branch should remain a public asset. Remember, the simplest option here for the City/SEPTA is to sell off the cut for development. But no one who really knows about the City Branch wants to give up such an important public asset. It should be seriously studied, with all options on the table, before we start up with any more designs and renderings.

    • Liam’s covered the major points, so I would like to say:

      I didn’t know about some of the very early studies on the (NYC) High Line. But I would like to point out those studies didn’t go much of anywhere largely BECAUSE the route was a freight spur in a deindustrialized district. Trying to reuse it for revenue freight transportation was something akin to grasping at straws.

      In that vein, I’m not surprised developers were trying to tear it down. Saving it would have been a catalyzing moment, unifying the community in support of a park conversion.

      The amount I’m quoting for environmental remediation is, of course, a guesstimate. But it’s based on some reality–namely, in the debates on the Viaduct, how much it would cost to rehabilitate or demolish. Both options wind up costing the same–about $300m in 2009 money.

      Now let me leave you with some irony. You cited Giuliani’s attempt to demolish the High Line as proof trail plans weren’t fully agreed-on (which I would interpret as being their catalyzing moment). If anything, your proposal might be a catalyzing moment for the City Branch–to return it to transit.

  9. Regardless of the merits of either the park or rail, ViaductGreene should be applauded for raising awareness of a piece of our hidden city. Their grant funds a study being completed by volunteers – no tax dollars are spent. Fantastic! Bring it on! Let’s see what they come up with. Heaven forbid someone propose something visionary in Philadelphia. There’s nothing stopping rail advocates from doing their own study. Until then, we won’t know what the costs might be, nor will we know the real pros and cons of either option.

  10. On Reinvention- it’s not just about reinvention of city government’s seriousness, it’s truly about reinvention of the City – ViaductGreene is committed to defining, programing, maintaining; managing and fundraising. Think conservancy. Think partnership.

    On incompatibility of rail gauge-incompatibility matters because it speaks to affordability, thus practicality. Either way one wishes to “build out” requires a lot more infrastructure than has been suggested. Any notion of “cheap to build” goes right out the window.

    Going both ways. You can’t go both ways. Sub-surface transit demands reasonably fast exit to, and entrance from, street level. As has been stated, City Branch grade is minimally 27′ below street level; it gets deeper to the east. One quickly gets to the point that BSL extensions aren’t reasonable, leading to a suggestion of light-rail/tram/trolley. The Parkway’s at-grade locations have the advantage, thus the current plan.

    Given recession, SEPTA’s Good Repair Initiatives, and sincere efforts to maintaining existing services, well, here we go…back to the bottom line, so to speak… Laying rail in the City Branch cut isn’t happening anytime soon, if ever. What might be happening soon, and is happening now, is ViaductGreene.

    • “Laying rail in the City Branch cut isn’t happening anytime soon, if ever. What might be happening soon, and is happening now, is ViaductGreene.”

      This “we’re here first” approach is my big objection to the whole thing. No one has done a proper, complete, and recent Alternatives Analysis of the assest. That’s what should be done when deciding to how to repurpose a major public asset. This should include transit, and park space, and even development of the site. All options should be on the table and they should be analyzed and compared.

      What are the benefits of park space vs. transit? What are the needs for this area: more park space or better transit service? These questions need to be answered, with data to back it up. Not just talk of being “transformative”.

      • There is no “we’re here first approach” at all; the answer to this seems to have been edited out of my last response. You claim the Alternative Analysis is over a decade old. It was done in 2006, and the conclusions reached perfectly appropriate for capital planning well into the 2020′s, given recession, make it the 2030′s. It’s not all about “what are the benefits of park space vs. transit.” It’s about resource allocation and real sustainability. If you had some idea of the work being done just to ensure the integrity of the right-of-way alone you’d be amazed.

        • If we’re talking about the 52nd Street-to-Center City AA, I guess I should give more detail on why I think it’s out of date:

          1) If it was published in 2006, then the work was done probably starting in 2004, so it’s 6-8 years old (not 10 like I said).

          2) It’s still old enough to assume that Schuylkill Valley Metro might be happening. This led to all the alternatives terminating at the non-existing 52nd Street SVM station. Terminal location is an important part of crafting good alternatives.

          3) There were no short, less-costly alternatives terminating near Fairmount. Every alternative crossed the Girard Ave bridge.

          4) The only modes compared were bus and light rail. As Steve has discussed, a BSL spur could be a viable option.

          [4b) To be fair, it doesn't appear that any bus rationalization in Fairmount was examined. It might be possible to get some major transit improvements in that area without a major capital outlay. This should be looked at.]

          5) The travel demand modelling completed in 2004-2006 will be based largely on the 2000 census. From what we know now in the 2010 census, Center City and the nieghborhoods to the NW have been growing.

          6) DVRPC is currently working on updating their travel demand model. I believe that this will include some improvements on how institutional destinations are handled. (The models typically focus on work-home-school trips.) A new AA will be able to take advantage of this upgrade.

          7) FTA has been updating the criteria to qualify for Federal dollars, and it is becoming less focused on pure cost-effectiveness. This will benefit transit projects nation-wide.

          Are any of these fatal flaws that completely discuont the previous AA? I don’t know, and I don’t get to make that decision, only SEPTA does. But I pretty strongly believe that the City and SEPTA should look at this again given how poorly served by transit the NW quadrant of CC is.

          The study might reveal that at-grade LRT on the Parkway is superior, or even that speeding up the 33 bus and giving it some pretty branding is enough. But we should study these things and know for sure before we make a decision about the only segregated ROW left in Center City.

          • -SVM was officially dead in early 2006, though the handwriting on the wall a lot earlier. The study makes no assumption regarding SVM. 52nd Street plays into the creating more of the existing hub and the up and coming “Centennial District.”

            -Even Steve has pretty much left the idea of a BSL spur (I think). Throw in equipment utilization (read- new) and cost of connection, land ownership issues (eminent domain…in Callowhill?), etc. etc. “low cost”? out the window.

            -DVRCP is attending ViaductGreene’s upcoming Community Task Force re. the CDC Grant. We’ve met with them last year.

            -SEPTA and the City have made decisions. It’s pretty clear what they “pretty strongly believe!”

          • In response to Paul–

            (1) The validity of that assertion, in 2006, would have been dicey. 52nd St. is frankly a better terminus now than then, and even now isn’t all that good.

            The SVM was SEPTA’s be-all end-all up until 2006. EVERYTHING SEPTA did or planned was supposed to tie into it somehow. The DVARP archives lay this bare for all to see.

            (2) This reminds me of a certain quote from Emperor Palpatine in “Return of the Jedi”…about “a great many things”. New light rail equipment isn’t as expensive as you make it out to seem. I crunched the numbers on the Tide order and came out pleasantly surprised. But going the light metro route eliminates it altogether as an expense, allowing greater concentration on infrastructure.

            Eminent domain? If anything, this ROW has been encroached on (slightly). SEPTA owns the whole thing to 13th, and the natural course thence would be street or under-street running…there is no need to worry about eminent domain along the Cut proper or environs. And the cost I’ve suggested has factored in ROW acquisition from CSX–indeed, it was the first cost that worried me.

            (3) Ok…

            (4) Actually, the City hasn’t made a decision yet. The Phila2035 master plan document shows the City Branch Cut as a light rail link, and the planning process for the area has only just begun.

            That SEPTA made its decision doesn’t really bother me. SEPTA has a historically poor track record with capex. The City’s decision is much more important.

    • Also, what is this “current plan” for at-grade light rail on the Parkway?

      Is it something that has come up in Phila2035 meetings? Is it something that is actually on the books somewhere? Is PCPC planning a study?

      • Central District Plan
        FIRST PUBLIC MEETINGS
        Two locations/
        same content
        June 18, 5:30-7:30
        German Society of Philadelphia
        611 Spring Garden Street
        RSVP here:
        http://centraplangerman.eventbrite.com/

        June 20, 5:30-7:30
        Hamilton Garden at Kimmel Center
        300 S. Broad Street
        RSVP here:
        http://centralkimmel.eventbrite.com/

      • “Eminent domain? If anything, this ROW has been encroached on (slightly). SEPTA owns the whole thing to 13th, and the natural course thence would be street or under-street running…there is no need to worry about eminent domain along the Cut proper or environs.”

        Creating right-of-way for “under-street” through Callowhill certainly will involve eminent domain. One alternative of PennDot’s Broad Street Bridge Rehabilitation or Replacement Plan is “fill in the entire structure,” which would be a considerable encroachment. That “SEPTA owns the whole thing” is being questioned by stakeholders.

        • “Creating right-of-way for “under-street” through Callowhill certainly will involve eminent domain.”

          Wrong. A route through Callowhill already exists–Noble Street. Noble Street = public right-of-way. Public right-of-way = no private takings. No private takings = no eminent domain.

          “One alternative of PennDot’s Broad Street Bridge Rehabilitation or Replacement Plan is “fill in the entire structure,” which would be a considerable encroachment.”

          Which is why need to discuss these alternatives NOW, before we get any more bad decisions.

          “That “SEPTA owns the whole thing” is being questioned by stakeholders.”

          Property law is quite clear on the whole thing. It’s an easement, which means SEPTA has the right to run whatever it likes through the whole thing.

          • I understand eminent domain, as well as the fact that actually making your suggested connections, especially the underground ones, won’t happen within the rights-of-way of city streets.

            Property law regarding rail rights-of-way may be clear, it’s interpretation seldom is. Evidence the SEPTA vs. CSX case involving fiber optic lines.

          • …a claim you haven’t satisfactorily demonstrated. Also, there’s no evidence of fiber ever being laid in the City Branch Cut.

            Like I said, legal research is necessary.

            Finally, your eminent domain argument is easily disproven for all to see. Just take a jog down Noble and you’ll notice that (a) there’s LOTS of space to make the slight jog from the City Branch Cut under Noble between 12th and Broad, and (b) that there’s a good angle to get onto Ridge from Noble with a flat junction, and if extra space is needed, it would all lie under the Viaduct (which as I’m sure you’re well aware of, the City is already in the process of acquiring).

  11. I would love to see light rail returned to the City Branch. This city lacks extensive rail service, and a NW spur is an excellent first step in moving us back to a rail-based transit system.

    I shudder at the thought of a sunken park of that length in Philadelphia. It will be a magnet for the wrong types of activities.

    • The City of Philadelphia ranks very well in transit scores and walkability
      scores. I’m all for more rail, especially more street level lines like the cultural corridor along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

      Poorly designed and managed places become “a magnet for the wrong types of activities.” ViaductGreene is committed to defining, programing, maintaining; managing and fundraising. Think conservancy. Think partnership.Think Conservancy.

      • So you want to take the parkway, a space designed for walking, and turn it into a transit way, while taking the city line, a space designed for transit, and turn it into a walkway?

        We are thinking conservancy. We are trying to conserve a valuable transit route and get it back into service to serve the people the best way possible. Grade separated transit is faster, safer, and more attractive to users. A grade separated walkway, managed by the city of philadelphia, will not be as safe, and transit on the parkway will be slower, more accident prone, and will do less to reduce traffic in the museum district.

        • and regarding Conservancy, think management, with the City; think Partnership, with the City, with the museums, with the institutions.

        • I believe the essay explains clearly that the City Branch, in combination with the 9th Street Branch creates a singular opportunity to create a great civic space- connecting, importantly and differentially historic, ecologically relevant, innovative in every way.

          ViaductGreene envisions a gardenpark defined by its varied neighborhoods, its historic industrial character, and its exciting, existing spontaneous vegetation, carefully curated and managed with limited interventions.

          ViaductGreene envisions the Parkway exquisitely. “The Parkway is underserved by public transit. The Phlash shuttles visitors among Parkway institutions, the Independence Visitor Center and other downtown stops. Better year-round service is needed along the Parkway to serve visitors and residents.” In early 2003 CPDC hosted a design charrette to answer a fundamental question: What type of place do we want to create? Looking back at early plans for the Parkway and learning from models as diverse as the Champs Elysées in Paris, the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, Forest Park in St. Louis, Balboa Park in San Diego, Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, a consensus emerged that the Parkway should advance as an animated cultural campus. Though carrying high volumes of cars, all parties agreed that the Parkway must become less a highway and more of a place. As the setting for major cultural, educational and civic institutions, the Parkway requires unifying, high-quality, well-maintained public spaces; a vibrant campus contains not only trees and gardens, but restaurants, cafes and a diversity of uses that animate public spaces with strolling pedestrians both day and night. ViaductGreene feeds every Parkway iniative.

          ViaductGreene acknowledges the vast impediments and lack of any clearly defined need for any reactivation of rail service as well as the attractive, realistically affordable alternatives.

          • “ViaductGreene acknowledges the vast impediments and lack of any clearly defined need for any reactivation of rail service as well as the attractive, realistically affordable alternatives.”

            Let’s turn this around:

            “Citizens acknowledge the vast impediments and lack of any clearly defined need for any implementation of a rail-trail as well as the attractive, realistically affordable alternative.”

          • The Parkway is no Champs Elysees. It’s a far cry from Commonwealth Ave even.

            The Parkway is never going to be a “place” until we start building something along it other than museums and ugly apartment towers (looking at your, Park Towne Place…) There’s no reason to travel along the Parkway right now. If you want to go to a destination on the Parkway, you travel N-S or E-W, not along the diagonal, because that’s where the activity is.

  12. I am really glad to see this topic being discussed. The City Branch transit idea is not new and actually dates back to the early 1900′s where the transit company at the time had planned a subway line from City Hall up the parkway and bang a right up 29th street (as an elevated on 29th) and eventually head up to Henry Ave and Roxborough.

    Regardless the route has had merit for decades in terms of potential ridership. The utilization of light rail is a good alternative to the original plan and going up 33rd along the park just makes practical sense. Minimal disturbance of residents, no need for eminent domain etc. The arguments about incompatibility just doesn’t any sense, there are historical reasons for the different track gauges and configurations found in an old city like Philadelphia but, it really doesn’t play in here. All of the light rail in the city is currently the same track gauge and I would hope that if this was pursued the cars and line would be cross functional with the rest of the light rail, and utilize their shops and yards to gain even greater economies of scale. This shouldn’t be a big challenge.

    Building on the idea of light rail in the city branch, I would suggest an alternate to the 12th st or 8th st tie-in ideas. They are both interesting but, I think there is a way to achieve a more effective passenger interchange they are looking for while leveraging current infrastructure already in place.

    I would suggest that the line divert out of the city branch and turn right under 20th street, in a tunnel, with a stop at Arch St / Logan Square and continue south and tie in to the existing subway surface line tunnels at Market st, then with stops at 19th, 15th, and Juniper / City hall and loop back out. This would provide a direct connection of the neighborhoods served by the line to not only the “cultural attarctions” but, more importantly the the major employment center and easy transfer to other lines and really the entire region via Suburban station. You could do this and really leverage existing infrastructure with little totally “new” construction. I think this option would dramatically cut down travel time to Center City’s employment base and the major transfer hub at Suburban or 30th Street.

    Here is a link to the “1919 Philadelphia Existing and Authorized Rapid Transit Lines” http://www.pbase.com/phillytrax/image/118851257/original.jpg

  13. I know context has changed since the early 2000s, but I also know that SEPTA engaged in federal court litigation in or around 2004-05 against Conrail (if I recall) to reclaim a right-of-way for train tracks. So someone in SEPTA thought it was a wise use of resources at that time to reclaim (or clarify ownership) of land important to possible future light rail.

    • Fact of the matter is SEPTA purchased portions City Branch right-of-way from Conrail in 1995 for $8.5M. Conrail sold portions off earlier. I’ve never heard of any litigation over the City Branch between SEPTA and Conrail and don’t believe there has been any.

    • Given the (amended from post) 2006 AA proposal, that makes sense: SEPTA would be wanting to clarify ownership along the line at least as far north as Girard Avenue.

      The decision in the matter should still stand, if anyone wants to find the pertinent court records (if available). Which could mean there’s already a clean easement as far as we need it to be, allowing for a less-expensive proposal.

    • I believe you’re referring to SEPTA vs. CSX Transportation, not Conrail. CSX permitted and collected fees for fiber optics laid in what was SEPTA’s City Branch right-of-way. The case demonstrates the extraordinary lack of clarity when dealing with railroad law and right-of-way issues.

  14. Hello. I just wanted to inform you that the image labeled the “Spring Garden Greenway” has been incorrectly cited. This was a student project from a competition in January known as the John Stewardson Memorial Fellowship in Architecture. You can find this as one of the images in the collective work at:

    http://cargocollective.com/bonnienetel/filter/The-111th-John-Stewardson-Memorial-Fellowship-in-Architecture-2012/Cine-City

    Thanks!

    • Thank you! Will fix–ed.

    • just to piggy-back on that, ViaductGreene isn’t a either-or composition regarding bike trails; comparison to the the experience of the Spring Garden Greenway will be what it will be, experience of ViaductGreene will be what it will be, each unique, each providing completely different experiences in a great American city. It’s the same with “need for park space.” While there is dearth of parkspace in Callowhill, there’s opportunity for great greening aplenty on the street level. ViaductGreene creates a garden of intersecting culture and wildness along the soaring and submersive landscape infrastructure that is the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad’s 9th Street & City Branches.

      The Big Idea is that it is impossible to consider the City Branch severed from the the 9th Street Branch, any more than it’s severed from the history of its great city and its grandest building projects. Book-ended with Philadelphia’s pioneer 1830s railway corridors, it IS a great place and like all great places, it’s the marked contrasts within a powerful consistency that attracts us.

  15. Trashed a duplicate comment. –Ed.

  16. Comments on this article now closed. –ed.

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