Urbanism

Op-Ed: It’s Time to Rethink SEPTA Options for Contemporary Commuter Connectivity

March 29, 2023 | by Edward W. Duffy

The old Strawbridge & Clothier warehouse at 9th and Poplar Streets was recently converted into apartments by real estate development firm Post Brothers. The 285-unit residential complex is a five minute walk to the former Girard Avenue rail station. | Photo: Ed Duffy

With SEPTA’s recent decision to pause its King of Prussia (KOP) rail line project, speculation on what should replace it has predictably focused on building the long-discussed Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, our region’s other big transit proposal. This alternative would yield a much higher level of passengers served, but it shares with the KOP project the risk of budget overruns that could potentially crush SEPTA. Planning costs alone for the KOP project have already set SEPTA back $53 million that it will never recoup. The Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, first proposed in 1913, has been studied a few times in the past, but so far has received little contemporary planning research, indicating that completion would be far into the future where the cost risk is greatest. PennDOT announced plans to study the proposed subway line in November 2022 as part of the City’s Routes for Change program.  SEPTA’s chief executive, Leslie Richards, stated in January that the project would cost at least $3 billion and that there is no way that the agency could secure funding.

From time to time Hidden City Philadelphia has reported on the regional transportation system and has occasionally suggested improvements. Two of these articles, both written by me, focused on reviving abandoned rail stations that once served commuters along the 9th Street Branch elevated line running south from Wayne Junction to Jefferson Station and beyond. These articles addressed the former Tioga Station and the former Girard Avenue Station. Tioga Station was closed by SEPTA after it assumed regional rail system operations from Conrail in 1983. Girard Avenue Station was shuttered by the former Reading Railroad in 1949.

Tioga Station looking south toward Center City. 20th Street is on the right. Date unknown. | Image courtesy of the Reading Company Technical and Historical Society

At the time both stations were closed, the former Reading Railroad line was a stub end extending no further than Reading Terminal on Market Street. But the 1984 completion of the Center City Commuter Connection Tunnel and what is today called Jefferson Station connected the line to a much larger system that originally terminated at Suburban Station. This linked system was extended further in 1985 with the opening of the Airport Line and, most recently, with the extension of the Media/Elwyn line to Wawa, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s economy underwent its transition from a Rust Belt town of declining industry into a capital of “eds and meds,” hospitality, and tourism. The rail line had served the heart of Philadelphia’s old industrial economy centered in Nicetown and Lower Germantown–Midvale Steel, Budd Company, Leeds & Northrup, among many others–but the various rail improvements have made the line a vital link to to the new economy taking root in Schuylkill Yards, along Market Street west of 30th Street, and in University City, a regional rail stop created in 1995 and now called Penn Medicine Station.

My two articles focused on improving access to employment opportunities for residents of Tioga, a lower income neighborhood plagued by poor commuter access, and on the Temple University and Poplar neighborhoods, which are ground zero for new high density residential development. Davis Dure, a commentator on the Girard Avenue Station article, made a telling observation. “Extending the relevance of Regional Rail to a larger constituency is all the more important now that new post-pandemic work habits reduce demand from the traditional constituency.”

With the KOP project on hold, maybe it is time to take a new look at the former 9th Street Branch (aka the 9th Street El), recognize its potential to serve more commuters, more neighborhoods, more centers of employment than it was originally designed for, and the fact that the infrastructure is already built.The same could be said for rail lines running past other abandoned stations, but the 9th Street Branch is under SEPTA’s exclusive control, so there is no need to negotiate with Amtrak or the freight railroads. The long march begins with the first step, and, to mix metaphors, the old 9th Street El is low hanging fruit.



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About the Author

Edward W. Duffy is the author of "Philadelphia: A Railroad History" (Camino Books, 2013) and "Philadelphia Celebrates: Three Great Anniversaries - 1876-1926-1976" (Camino Books, 2017).

10 Comments:

  1. Michael says:

    I think these fantasy ideas for public transport are largely a waste of time. Bus rapid transit could be rapidly set up for the boulevard. I’m just not sure how many people actually working downtown anymore to warrant any kind of rail.

    1. Rose K says:

      Since moving from my city they’ve opened an entirely new part of a Major train station, built tunnels going from one borough to another, etc. Why does Philly always come down to the place that can’t get anything done? Yes, projects go over budget….they all do. But what’s the alternative? Never create or expand due to cost?

  2. Janet Little says:

    Reviving the 9th Street branch sounds doable. It is unclear why it was closed. I hope SEPTA studies this idea to determine the need for it today and in the future

  3. Larry j reese says:

    I am the former Transportation manager that partnered with the NAACP to get benches installed at Broad and Olney. If they touch my benches they’re going to piss me off and I’m looking to prevent that from happening. I think you and I are meant to work together I was also two time Midvale Roadeo champion and former SEPTA Santa Claus driving a decorated bus and delivering Toys for tots. My number is 445-247-8168 please contact me at your earliest convenience. By the way after getting the benches installed they found out my father was black and my career took a downward spiral. Coincidences?

  4. Timothy Brown says:

    Given how bad rail is needed in the coming years to combat traffic woes. Not only should the Roosevelt subway be considered and built, but also SEPTA needs to reactivate the diesel lines it abandoned decades ago and have them electrified. Especially in the areas past Norristown towards Phoenixville and Reading.

  5. Bill Danbury says:

    All I want are park-and-ride garages along the highways (76, 476, 95) with BRT to 30th Street and boost the usage of the existing infrastructure by adding these new riders.

  6. Judah Rosenthal says:

    Tioga, technically Nicetown-Tioga, is not “plagued by poor commuter access.” There are several bus routes in this neighborhood that go all across the city:

    1) the 2 travels between Wayne Junction and South Philly (Point Breeze), with a stop near the North Philadelphia SEPTA/Amtrak station
    2) the 56 and the 60 go to the Northeast and Kensington, respectively, with stops at the BSL stations at Erie and Allegheny Aves
    3) the H and the 53 go from Mount Airy/Cedarbrook to the BSL Erie stop
    4) the 33 goes down to Market street and Penn’s Landing, with a stop at the Allegheny Regional Rail station on the Manayunk/Norristown Line in the southwest corner of the neighborhood.

    Allegheny averaged under 100 boardings per day even before COVID. If this station is barely used, what would be the rationale for another station less than a mile away?

    I like trains and history as much as the next nerdy white guy, but rebuilding the old Tioga rail station will not alleviate the social and economic problems of this neighborhood. Reinvesting in current transit infrastructure (increasing bus and subway frequency, improving lighting and security at various stations/stops, facilitating transfers to existing rail stations) is the better way forward.

    1. Ed Duffy says:

      Staff of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission undertaking the Commission’s Neighborhood Revitalization Strategies series focused their attention on Tioga in June, 2010 and based on their findings recommended for further study reopening one of Tioga’s closed regional rail stations as part of its revitalization (page 35). This recommendation was not implemented. Their report can be read in its entirety HERE.

      On June 9, 2020, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article “Why one Philadelphia neighborhood has surged while another languishes,’ finding that one of the reasons for Tioga’s continued poverty was its lack of transportation access to centers of job creation such as Center City and Penn Medicine. This article is located HERE.

      These two separate studies of Tioga-Nicetown each have concluded that the neighborhood’s access to centers of job growth is impeded by inadequate public transit.

      Your comment on Tioga’s social and economic problems being an excuse for not considering reviving Tioga Station – is that official SEPTA policy?

  7. James says:

    The Roosevelt Subway will end up exceeding its 3B cost estimate plus with construction going on in I-95 and with the subway digging going on Roosevelt Blvd, you will have two highways undergoing construction at once.

    Better to have buses running along the Boulevard to Neshaminy Mall.

    Tioga and Girard are not necessary to pick up riders as plenty of people take buses, MFL and BSS to get downtown.

  8. Greg says:

    The one critical project unaddressed is linking the suburban outer rail lines together. Fanciful wasteful projects like the KOP line pushed by mall real estate interests and the long abandoned NE Phila Sunway.

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