The first transcontinental railroad ran 1900 miles across an unsettled frontier of plains, deserts and massive mountain chains. It was built in six years.
By contrast, SEPTA’s extension of the Elwyn Line to Wawa would run just short of five miles over tracks that already exist, and that hosted passenger traffic until 1986.
The effort to build it has been going on for fifteen years and has at least one more year to go. Somewhere between these two extremes there must be a happy medium, where transit companies can build safely to expand services in reasonable time, while still taking public concerns into account.
Now SEPTA is embarking on its biggest project in years: the King of Prussia Spur of the Norristown High-Speed Line. The 4.5-mile line has been in the planning stages since 2013 and construction is not expected to begin until 2025 at the earliest. The same costly delays plague this project as many others: in 2016, the estimated cost was $1.1 billion. Four years later it has nearly doubled.
The biggest obstacles in railway construction in the 21st century are not geography and weather, but courts, regulators and endless public consultations. These rules — many of them stemming from the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA) — are tiny strands of red tape that constrain an entire nation. Taken together, small rules freeze up development that would benefit the region and the entire country.
NEPA began as an overreaction to a bad policy: the bulldozing of entire neighborhoods for highway construction in the 1950′s and 60′s, with little or no input from the people who lived there. These tragedies played out across the country, dressed up as “slum clearance” or “progress.” In our own area, a planned I-695 was going to do to South Street what I-676 did to Vine, until the outrage against such projects convinced politicians to cancel it.
But for railroad construction, NEPA’s delays and exorbitant costs have shown it to be in need of significant reform. The King of Prussia is a smart project that connects our region’s two largest commercial areas by rail, using land mostly owned by the government or a public utility. Why should an environmental law hold this progress up?
The problems begin with the time it takes to consult the public. The process requires a statement of goals and a list of alternatives to achieve them, which are then discussed at public meetings.
So far, so good, but the process requires listing every impact, with special attention being paid to the so-called “section 4(f) resources”: parks, wildlife refuges, and historic sites. Impact statements often run hundreds of pages in length and must “discuss all major points of view on the environmental impacts of the alternatives including the proposed action.” Just seeing or hearing the proposed project could count as an impact. And this special emphasis on parks and historic sites explains why the KOP extension will not run to historic Valley Forge just steps up the road.
The lawsuits this dynamic spurs are a boon for lawyers, but not for SEPTA or the greater public. Legal challenges could come from well-funded non-profits that are not even located in the area affected by the project, but claim an interest in some aspect of wildlife protection or historic preservation.
If the litigants win, the government must redo the analysis to take these adverse effects into account; but even if they lose, the process has been delayed, often for years. Hence, a seven-year planning stage for less than five miles of track to connect King of Prussia to Center City, a no-brainer from a transit standpoint.
Meanwhile, SEPTA spends its limited funds on fighting even the most frivolous claims in court instead of on building the actual project.
We will soon have in Joe Biden a president who famously loves rail transit. How could he help projects like the King of Prussia line along? As always, a loser-pays law in litigation would discourage frivolous lawsuits. Time limits on the NEPA process, like the ones President Trump enacted by executive order in 2017, should be sustained and expanded with regard to rail construction. Challenges to the analyses should be limited to people that actually reside in the area, cutting out the professional gadflies who have no real involvement with the project.
Public transit benefits the environment, so why should environmental laws make it harder to expand public transit? President-elect Biden should work with the new Congress -- where moderates and “Problem Solvers” may be emboldened -- as well as regulators to streamline the process so that transit projects can benefit the public without taking decades to get built.