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SEPTA stops work on proposed King of Prussia Rail Line after federal government denies funding

SEPTA has stopped work on the 4-mile King of Prussia rail extension to its Norristown High Speed Line. The project was expected to cost more than $3 billion.

A rendering of SEPTA's Henderson Road Station along the proposed King of Prussia rail extension.
A rendering of SEPTA's Henderson Road Station along the proposed King of Prussia rail extension.Read moreSEPTA/Courtesy

SEPTA has stopped all work on its proposed rail service to King of Prussia, concluding the agency would not have the money to keep it moving forward after the federal government declined last week to award the project a competitive capital grant for new transit.

The projected costs of the 4-mile extension of the Norristown High Speed Line had ballooned to more than $3 billion, SEPTA officials said, about 54% more than estimated when the project began in 2012.

According to SEPTA officials, the Federal Transit Administration was concerned that the transit authority did not have enough money to cover cost overruns, which are virtually inevitable in big infrastructure projects, while maintaining the assets it already has and paying for other needed work.

“With the funding we have currently, SEPTA must prioritize essential infrastructure work and safety and security improvements to maximize the reliability and effectiveness of our aging system,” General manager and CEO Leslie S. Richards said in a statement.

Factoring in today’s inflation and higher interest rates helped convince SEPTA leadership it was best to hit the pause button.

Transit advocates and analysts have long criticized the KOP proposal as a wasteful investment because SEPTA planners had projected it would draw about 10,000 daily riders, making it what could have been one of the most expensive projects, on a per-passenger basis, to be built in the country.

“It was time for SEPTA to wake up and see the tides are turning,” said Jay Arzu, a doctoral student in urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, who has advocated to revive shelved plans for a subway or El running along Roosevelt Boulevard in the Northeast.

Arzu said it would cost much less than the rail project to improve bus service to King of Prussia, for instance, and money also could be better used to build bus rapid transit lanes (BRT) in congested areas of the region, to continue the trolley modernization project, or to help upgrade the regional rail system, which SEPTA is also planning — or even building the Boulevard subway, which has generated public enthusiasm.

“Now we really need to have a conversation about our region’s transit priorities,” Arzu said, noting that he was not celebrating the likely end of the KOP project.

SEPTA has spent at least $53 million on the KOP proposal so far for required studies and planning, said spokesperson Andrew Busch.

That includes $20 million left over from a congressional earmark in 2002 for the Schuylkill Valley Metro, a proposed rail line that would have connected Philadelphia and Reading, with service in between. SEPTA also spent $33 million of its own capital funds on the KOP rail.

SEPTA last month awarded a $125 million contract to HNTB Corp., an architectural and engineering firm, for the final design work on the extension, the last step before construction. Busch, the spokesperson, said the contract had not been finalized, and SEPTA won’t be on the hook for that money.

The decision comes as a number of planned transit projects around the U.S. have been canceled or scaled back. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority recently announced it could only build half the projects it had planned after voters approved a new sales tax, for example. New York’s MTA canceled a long-sought “air train” from Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport because it decided the cost had become prohibitive.

Formal planning for the KOP rail extension began in 2012. Federal paperwork, a detailed environmental review and local opposition delayed the project, as did SEPTA’s redrawing the path of the line to minimize neighborhood impact. Tracks would have rested on elevated concrete guideways that soared over the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other properties in //Upper Merion Township, which would prove more costly than other early proposed versions of the project.

“We still think that KOP would be good for the future of the region,” Busch said. But he added that mothballing the project will free up about $340 million SEPTA has budgeted for the KOP rail to spend on other capital work: replacement of aging trolleys and Market-Frankford Line cars, infrastructure repairs, and retrofitting subway and Regional Rail stations for ADA accessibility.

“We have a lot of needs,” Busch said.