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SEPTA's billion-dollar plan for new trolleys takes a step forward

A new report is providing a first glimpse of what a major overhaul for Philadelphia's trolley network might mean for the city's riders and the city's streets.

The high steps riders navigate to board trolleys could be a thing of the past if SEPTA's modernization plan comes to pass.
The high steps riders navigate to board trolleys could be a thing of the past if SEPTA's modernization plan comes to pass.Read moreJason Laughlin

An ambitious plan to remake Philadelphia's trolleys took a step forward with a preview of how modernization will change not only how people ride, but also how they drive, bike, and park on the city's six streetcar routes.

A new report details plans for stops with platforms raised above street level that will be wheelchair-accessible and provide the backbone of a service that, along with larger cars, would remake the trolleys into something more like light rail.

The report from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, released last week, is a small advance toward the plan to introduce new trolleys by 2024, an estimated $1 billion overhaul that rivals the proposed rail line to King of Prussia in both cost and scope.

"This is a game-changer for really an entire section of the city," said Erik Johanson, SEPTA's director of business innovation.

The new service would lengthen the distance between stops and defined platforms where riders get on and off, instead of the buslike system in which trolleys can stop at nearly every intersection. The current 112 cars that are 53 feet long and were manufactured by Kawasaki during the Reagan administration, along with 18 cars that date to 1948, would be replaced by 120 cars at least 80 feet long that could hold about twice as many people.

SEPTA also has 29 trolleys on two routes in Delaware County that would be replaced, but the focus is on city transit for now. SEPTA anticipates the size of the new trolleys would allow it to reduce its fleet by 39 cars.

Trolleys largely run between West Philadelphia and Center City, with the exception of a line on Girard Avenue, and the lines get more use than any single bus line or most Regional Rail lines. Almost 80,000 people each work day use the trolleys, and half of SEPTA's 10 most used routes across all modes of travel are trolley lines.

"I think the benefits are going to accrue the most to people who are farther out on the line," said Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city's Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems. "They're going to see some of the larger improvements in mobility in lower-income, higher-minority communities in general."

The trolley modernization project is being shaped by twin demands: capacity and accessibility. The nearly 40-year-old cars are packed even when it isn't rush hour, and SEPTA anticipates ridership growing by half a percentage point a year for the foreseeable future. The current cars are seven years past their expected 30-year shelf life and average a failure for every 12,000 miles traveled.

The changes have the potential to reshape streets, shifting areas where cars and bikes travel and eliminating some parking spaces. Philadelphia's plans for bike lanes in some neighborhoods have spurred controversy, and any changes in travel lanes will require City Council approval. SEPTA and city officials had plans Wednesday to meet with Council members from the six districts with trolleys to discuss the changes needed.

"I would say this is going to generate some discussion," Johanson said.

The price tag for the trolley modernization is comparable with the $1.1 billion SEPTA is predicting for the King of Prussia extension of the Norristown High-Speed Line. New cars will cost about $500 million, SEPTA officials said. SEPTA is expecting to have to upgrade much of its trolley infrastructure, including wires, bridges, and garages, to accommodate bigger vehicles.

In 2015, SEPTA anticipated starting to buy new cars by this year, but finding funding has slowed the process. The agency expects to rely heavily on federal grants for the work, but the procurement process for new cars, or a search for funding, has yet to begin.

SEPTA officials have visited Toronto, where the transit commission is in the midst of a similar upgrade to its streetcar system. Toronto is spending about $957 million (in U.S. dollars) for 204 new streetcars, a spokesman for the Canadian transit agency said.

SEPTA's 68 miles of track is the largest trolley network in the country. Philadelphia's trolleys survived when other cities switched to buses in large part because of the 2½-mile, century-old tunnel from 40th Street near Baltimore Avenue to City Hall that allows trolleys to avoid Center City's street-level congestion.

New cars are a must, but if SEPTA is going to upgrade the system, it will have to make it accessible to people with disabilities. Now, only the trolleys running on Girard have wheelchair ramps. The rest of the fleet has three feet of steps up to the passenger areas.

"Negotiating those steps can be difficult," said Kyle Golden, 59, of West Philadelphia, a rider who uses a cane because of back and knee problems.

For people in wheelchairs, boarding a trolley is impossible. A 2016 DVRPC study estimated that if West Philadelphia's trolleys were wheelchair accessible, a ramp would be used on about 6 percent of trips.

SEPTA expects to buy vehicles with floors about 14 inches above the ground and buttons on the outside of cars to allow people with mobility issues to automatically extend a ramp. The lower floors should make boarding faster for everyone, not just people with physical limitations, but that won't be enough to make trolleys accessible. Trolley tracks don't typically bring the cars close enough to the curb to make ramp boarding easy. Streetscapes would have to change, and the report the DVRPC released Tuesday showed for the first time how that might look.

The stops would need platforms about 80 feet long and high enough to be nearly flush with the trolley car doors. Some would have shelters installed. The report proposed four design models for trolley stops:

Extending the curb out toward tracks.

Two variations that also extend the curb, but also make space for bike lanes.

An island that would direct automobile traffic around the trolley stop.

A designated lane for trolleys separate from road traffic.

Geography and traffic patterns would determine which design would be most appropriate for each stop. The need for accessible stations is driving the plan for a service with fewer stops, officials said. A vehicle built to accommodate people with physical limitations would stop only at places where they could board. It isn't feasible to redesign the streets at every intersection along a trolley route.

Easier boarding and fewer stops means faster trips, which regular trolley riders said they would appreciate.

"It's a trolley, so I think everyone knows it's slow anyway," said Amber Davis, 28, a social worker who Wednesday used the Route 34 trolley to travel from her office to meet with a client.

Philadelphia's trolleys stop on average every 642 feet, far more frequently than any other big city's surface rail lines, which average a stop every 1,157 feet. While the new platforms would take away parking in some areas, the intersections where the trolley no longer stopped could add parking. If the new system has 40 percent fewer stops than the current trolley network, the net number of parking spaces will remain the same, according to the DVRPC report.

SEPTA and the city expect to hold community meetings in the neighborhoods that would be affected by the trolley modernization. Much of the project remains in its infancy, with specifics to be determined and money to be found.

"It's early yet still," said Betsy Mastaglio, manager of the DVRPC's office of transit, bicycle, and pedestrian planning. The DVRPC report is "the framework or tool box of station design."