SEPTA, PATCO, and the chance for a new rail line

The Daily News notes some good news for SEPTA- and really, for all of us- today:

When SEPTA hiked fares 12 percent last summer, transit-agency officials said they expected ridership to decline, as it had after prior fare increases.

But when gasoline prices jumped sky-high and stayed there, SEPTA ridership escalated by 30,000 daily trips (4 percent) from July 1 to Jan. 1 over the same period in 2006.

Regional Rail ridership rose 12 percent, or 13,000 daily trips, while city transit (trains and buses) increased by 17,000 daily trips or 2.6 percent.

The ridership renaissance continued last month, up 51,000 daily trips or 6 percent over the previous January - up 32,000 daily trips on city transit; up 19,000 daily trips on Regional Rail.

SEPTA, while not totally funded, does now have reliable funding from the State. And, they have a general manager who rides the train every day. And, they are getting hybrid buses.

So, while the iron is hot...

I have been following with interest that PATCO is trying to get masive federal funding to build a line in New Jersey (likely along 42 from Philly to Glassboro/Pitman). Because they can't ignore our side of the river, PATCO is also talking about building a line along the Delaware. That sounds like a reasonable idea- who wouldn't like a new transit line? However, new rail lines come along at best, once in a generation, and cost in the billions to build. So, it seems crazy that our one and only chance might be as a sort of throw away plan because PATCO really wants to build a New Jersey line.

We have talked many times about new lines within Philly. I think it is time that SEPTA get on the ball, and really start exploring this in detail, with public input and comment. If we only get one chance at a new line, we mine as well make it one that we really want, not one that makes sense for PATCO.

What we really want

To a large extent, what 'we really want' is a good PATCO expansion into S. Jersey, as that could help remove quite a bit of traffic from the roads.

My 'dream project' would be a rail expansion which effectively 'connects the spokes' of Philadelphia's hub-and-spokes rail network. Simply put, most suburban rail networks were designed on the early 20th century notion that commuting was almost exclusively done from suburb to city, never suburb to suburb. So, for instance, for me to get from my house in Mount Airy- which is perhaps the US' best example of a suburb within a city- to my parents' house in Blue Bell, I have to take the R8 in to CC, and then switch to the R5 Lansdale-Doylestown out to them. My situation is hardly unique. A good idea would be to connect some of the outer edges of the spokes, making a more direct commute possible- without requiring a ride into CC. The issue, of course, is cost: any rail expansion is expensive, and one of this scale would be enormous.

A less ambitious idea: gradually replace all SEPTA diesel buses w/diesel-electric hybrids.

Diesel-electric hybrid technology is seriously old, proven stuff- virtually any train which doesn't draw power from overhead caternary or third rail is powered by a diesel-electric hybrid engine. In fact, diesel is the perfect engine to use in a hybrid system, since it runs at peak efficiency when allowed to run build up internal pressure + run at a steady rate- precisely the way it is used when powering an electric generator in a hybrid system. Buses make a perfect pairing for diesel-electric hybrids b/c the engine weight:vehicle weight ratio is much favorable than it would be in a car. Another advantage: since the diesel engine can run at a steady rate, rather than revving up and down as in a conventional diesel bus, diesel-electric hybrid buses should last longer. Still another advantage: diesel-electric buses are thought to get 40% better mileage than conventional diesel buses, although these claims have been questioned.


Who is we? If you asked

Who is we? If you asked people of Philadelphia, or even within all of SE PA, I am pretty confident that if you gave them a bunch of different choices, expanding transportation in New Jersey is probably not at the top.

I spent yesterday on 42, in rush hour, going to exactly the town where the route would end. I know that drive, and that traffic well, and there is no question that tt is a needed project.

But, instead of riding Jersey's coattails, and being handed a project along the Delaware because PATCO basically has to to also propose the one along 42, I am not sure why we wouldn't want to examine a lot more routes.


I think that priorities are the main issue, as I'm sure you'd agree. The question is what the correct priorities should be. I suggest that, if the priority is to get people off the region's already-strained highway system, taking a good number of Jersey residents off the highways is a good way to do so.

What would you suggest both as a priority + a way to address that priority?

Inquiring minds, etc.,

Yes, and Federal officials

Yes, and Federal officials always have to decide what they fund, and Philly officials should survey what their constituents want, and what makes the most sense.

But, again, I can state quite confidently that a priority for Philadelphia residents, and all of SE PA, is probably not alleviating traffic for people driving to Glassboro.

I know my priorities would involve a system that involves... the city of Philadelphia.

Parochial interests

I'm not trying to be rude, but you've written several things that have gotten me a little riled up.

1. "If we only get one chance at a new line, we mine as well make it one that we really want, not one that makes sense for PATCO."

I'm sorry, but did you just say that it doesn't matter what makes sense for the people who will be paying for it? That it doesn't matter what integrates well with the existing transportation network? That it doesn't matter whether people from South Jersey actually want to take a train (or two, counting the transfer) to the Navy Yard or Fishtown? That we're all prepared to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into building something just because of an arbitrary agreement hammered out between the two states? That all that matters is that you get something you want?

2. "I can state quite confidently that a priority for Philadelphia residents, and all of SE PA, is probably not alleviating traffic for people driving to Glassboro."

The PATCO plan is not about people driving to Glassboro. It's about people driving from Glassboro (and Deptford and Vineland) into Philadelphia -- clogging up Philly streets just as much as those east of the Delaware. Stuck in a traffic jam on 676 at evening rush hour? The line to Glassboro could help alleviate some of that traffic.

3. "I know my priorities would involve a system that involves ... the city of Philadelphia."

Yes, and the people in South Jersey prioritize South Jersey, just as the people in MontCo prioritize MontCo, just as the people in Scranton and Harrisburg and York prioritize those places -- and we butt heads until we sit down and work out a reasonable agreement. As I described in #2, we are all interdependent, and the sooner we recognize that fact, the better off we'll all be.


Your comments make public policy seem like it's just a numbers game. You give the impression that it doesn't matter what the region wants or needs or can sustain; as long as there is funding parity, no economics are necessary. All that matters is getting what you want (whether or not that has a rational foundation) -- and all the better that you get to stick other people with some of the bill.

So after all this, what do I think is the best plan for the Pennsylvania share of the PATCO money? Give SEPTA cash -- or write a check, or float a bond -- proportional to the price of the New Jersey expansion. This way, neither SEPTA nor PATCO will be stuck with an additional route to build, staff, and equip. Maybe instead of one major capital improvement, SEPTA could use the money for lots of smaller capital improvements like improved parking and lighting, new railcars, cleaner stations, high-level platforms.

I know why DRPA is looking to build the New Jersey expansion. By taking cars off the streets, it benefits South Jerseyans, it benefits Philadelphians, and it benefits anyone who takes I-676 (which backs up onto 95 and 76). Heck, it benefits everyone on the planet by reducing carbon emissions. But why expand the Pennsylvania network instead of improving the existing system? Don't we have something better to do with $1.8 billion?

Two Seperate Issues

That is actually not what I am saying at all. In fact, it is sort of the opposite. Maybe my post was too quick and rushed, so I will say it again.

My point is that DRPA wants to build along 42 (line #1). Fine- it is hugely congested, and getting people off the road will be good. So, go for it. I have zero problem with it, and think it is great. (And that specific line has personal convenience for me, because my family lives at the proposed end of it. I literally sat in 42 traffic yesterday.)

However, because DRPA is controlled by two states, and therefore needs to maintain some parity, they are also putting out a Philly proposal, essentially for light rail on the Delaware. My point is that the Philly proposal (line #2) is what makes sense for DRPA, but not necessarily for Philly. In fact- they are doing exactly what you are accusing me of- proposing to put down a line along the river, because they need to satisfy a pure numbers thing (.5 for Philly, .5 for S. Jersey). I imagine a Delaware line would be great, but, I would prefer to actually have a process where we identify any number of potential new routes

So, S. Jersey can have their line. But, since we really don't get very many chances at this, I would prefer to actually have a rational study of all potential new lines, not just one that makes sense for PATCO. And then go through an actual process where policymakers and the public evaluate those, and decide what to push for.

Thank you

Points well taken. Glad to hear that we are much more in line than I had garnered from the original post.

transit oriented development

DC's Metro considers transit oriented development:

DRPA - The impediment to expanding PATCO.

I don't understand.

Didn't DRPA just throw a bunch of money away on a soccer stadium that is likely to fail... in Chester? There's plenty of soccer moms and soccer dads in the region scratching their heads and wondering if the stadium site is going to be in a "safe zone" sufficient for them to park their luxury SUV's there and not worry about getting mugged in the parking lot.

And what about the 0.9% constructed tram to nowhere (Camden)?

Or what about Vincent Fumo coercing DRPA; convincing them to fund "community services"--nothing to do with transportation in the least?

I wonder if the Feds will look at DRPA's request for this line, and after looking at their balance sheet--wonder if this is really a good idea to give money to a Board of Directors who is not likely to spend the money on what it is supposed to be allocated towards.

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