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Daniel Rubin: Foes of SEPTA garage find it hard to see past their own environment

Spent Memorial Day with friends in Wyncote - chicken on the grill, kids on the porch, and no sign of the peril that's got all the neighbors sticking placards in the ground warning: "Save Our Township."

Spent Memorial Day with friends in Wyncote - chicken on the grill, kids on the porch, and no sign of the peril that's got all the neighbors sticking placards in the ground warning: "Save Our Township."

The threat? SEPTA wants to build a parking garage at the Jenkintown train station.

I'm not talking about just a few lawn signs. I stopped counting when I passed 200 the other day. Their message is addressed to the Cheltenham Township commissioners, whose silence on the plan was enough to cost at least one incumbent his job in this month's primary.

This issue would seem to be a head-scratcher in as progressive-minded a place as furry Cheltenham. (Think Mount Airy with its own school system.)

Wouldn't a garage that would add 244 spaces encourage more people to use public transportation? Isn't that, you know, a good thing? As it is, the lot fills a little after 8 a.m. each workday, and those without spaces have to stash their car on the very streets where the signs are popping up.

And don't we desperately need to drop our dependence on foreign oil, when mornings on the Schuylkill feel more and more like traveling by donkey cart through Cairo?

Curiosity over my neighbors' full-throated opposition put me in a back-row seat at All Hallows Church Thursday night for a two-hour meeting of the Cheltenham Chamber of Citizens, which isn't as ominous a body as it sounds.

An echo chamber

The chamber, an organization formed for this issue, has 17 committees, operates democratically, and lets everyone talk, although it also lets people talk over arguments they don't like.

The most interesting point I heard was that this plan would hurt the environment. Olga McHugh, who led the session and whose daughter bought a house across the street from the proposed garage, contended that the plan "only reinforces the culture of the car and the dependency on fossil fuels and will not reduce greenhouse-gas emissions."

This is why I love my township.

What are really needed, McHugh argued, are more frequent stops at the stations that are closer to home for many commuters who use Jenkintown's, which is the busiest station outside the city.

She pulled a figure from a Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission study showing that 29 percent of those using the station lived closer to another stop. It's bad public policy, she said, for people to drive from outlying areas.

That made me call for an explanation from SEPTA's chief engineer, Jeffrey Knueppel. The more stops a train makes, he explained, the longer the commute takes for those who live farther from the city. SEPTA relies on these commuters' business. Fixing this problem would require more cars or more tracks, neither of which SEPTA can afford.

An emotional thing

Matt Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers said his group sided with SEPTA on this issue, although the call wasn't easy.

"It's the best way to handle the growing ridership demands," he said.

The opposition, Mitchell said, is more emotional than logical. "Fear of outsiders is what's driving this," he said. "And I think these kinds of not-in-my-backyard reactions tend to snowball."

The momentum rolled over Jeff Muldawer, who was beaten in the Democratic primary for Cheltenham commissioner by a woman who campaigned against the project. Muldawer, a Center City lawyer, said the township's counsel had advised all incumbents not to take a position on the garage because they'd likely have to vote on it.

"I got caught in the middle," he said.

I listened Thursday to the other objections. The chamber deftly poked holes in the surveys SEPTA used to determine more parking was needed. SEPTA has commissioned new surveys, whose results are due next month.

People wondered why SEPTA seemed to be favoring commuters who lived farther out. They worried over the fate of those smaller stations that have less service. They doubted whether traffic-pattern tweaks would relieve the daily rush of 600 cars to their neighborhood.

But the objection that really caught my ear was the last one raised by McHugh's husband, Tom, who was running the projector.

"When you get down to the nitty-gritty, it's property values," he said. "If there's no garage, and gas goes to $5, our property values will go up."

For me, that was a real notebook-closer. Here's what I think: Build it.