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SEPTA unwisely pushes for suburban investment while improvement plans in the city languish | Editorial

The transit agency has balked at a subway extension along Roosevelt Boulevard but presses ahead with an expansion to King of Prussia. Does this prioritization really make sense?

Traffic on the Roosevelt Expressway at Cottman Avenue in August. A subway extension of the Broad Street Line could carry more than 100,000 people a day.
Traffic on the Roosevelt Expressway at Cottman Avenue in August. A subway extension of the Broad Street Line could carry more than 100,000 people a day.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

At a public forum for the city’s mayoral candidates Tuesday, support for the Roosevelt Boulevard subway extension was strong. Each of the half-dozen major candidates in attendance, besides Jeff Brown, endorsed the concept, even going so far as to label it the one infrastructure project they pick over all others, a testament to the potentially transformative power it has for the city. The last time the extension was seriously studied, it was projected to host over 100,000 riders a day. That’s roughly how many people took all of SEPTA’s 13 Regional Rail lines combined during the pre-pandemic era.

Despite this, SEPTA and local planning officials have been reluctant to endorse the proposal, citing costs. According to SEPTA’s chief executive, Leslie Richards, the agency simply can’t afford to build it, as it would cost at least $3 billion. Curiously, however, SEPTA has not cried poor over a different transit expansion project, the King of Prussia rail line. The project has an estimated ridership of 10,000 people per day and an estimated cost of nearly $3 billion. Does this prioritization really make sense?

Sadly, it is par for the course when it comes to regional transit. While any urban planning student could tell you that public transportation is more effective in densely populated areas, SEPTA has repeatedly shown that it is willing to cut service in Philadelphia rather than improve it. Even in relatively recent times, the city has lost the iconic 23 and 56 trolley lines. According to SEPTA’s own ridership data, both of the replacement buses on these routes have higher ridership than even the rosiest projections for KOP rail.

Instead of investing in better service in Philadelphia, SEPTA’s admittedly limited capital dollars have often gone to projects in suburban areas. SEPTA recently completed a nearly $200 million project to extend Regional Rail to Wawa station in Delaware County. Yet local officials have rejected the proposed transit-oriented community that was supposed to help justify that expansion, and some residents are already complaining about the persistent sound of train horns blowing overnight.

» READ MORE: The Roosevelt Boulevard subway and the need for ambitious public transit leadership | Editorial

SEPTA officials have pushed back on these criticisms in the past, citing the agency’s roughly $900 million trolley modernization program as an example of investing in Philadelphia. Yet trolley modernization isn’t something new; it is a long overdue update to an existing service. Philadelphia will certainly benefit from new, accessible trolleys, but they should have been here years ago.

Sadly, deferred maintenance on city transit infrastructure is routine. While riders at suburban stations enjoy such premium amenities as heat lamps, city residents make do without. Neither of the city’s heavy rail systems is fully compliant with the 33-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act, either.

Far from making the El and Broad Street Line stations as comfortable as possible, SEPTA has allowed them to slip into a state of disrepair. Old City residents have complained that the Second Street station has become a somewhat permanent encampment for people experiencing homelessness. South Philadelphians have cited the Snyder Avenue station as increasingly hazardous. Yet while SEPTA cuts ribbons in the suburbs, insufficient action has been taken to resolve transit issues in the heart of the city.

This lack of balance isn’t just unfair to Philadelphians, it is also a foolish way to invest limited transit dollars. No matter how luxurious or extensive you make public transportation in the suburbs, these areas offer significantly less potential ridership than the city. Not only that, local opposition to public transit in the suburbs often causes less effective, more expensive routing.

The last time Philadelphia seriously considered building the Boulevard subway extension, it was dubbed an expensive “Cadillac project.” City officials were encouraged to settle for Bus Rapid Transit, a more affordable option. Does it really make sense to deliver luxury service to King of Prussia instead?