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Amazon got land SEPTA wanted. Will it delay a much-needed trolley upgrade?

While Amazon builds a warehouse in Philadelphia's Eastwick neighborhood, SEPTA must scramble to find another place for its trolley barn.

A SEPTA trolley passes the Penrose Plaza strip mall on Island Avenue. Neighbors and elected officials say the site is under consideration as a SEPTA trolley headquarters now that its preferred location on Elmwood Avenue is instead going to be an Amazon warehouse.
A SEPTA trolley passes the Penrose Plaza strip mall on Island Avenue. Neighbors and elected officials say the site is under consideration as a SEPTA trolley headquarters now that its preferred location on Elmwood Avenue is instead going to be an Amazon warehouse.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

It came suddenly, like the floodwaters that inundate Eastwick during a storm.

For about a decade, SEPTA had vetted and planned to buy a 29-acre abandoned industrial site in Southwest Philadelphia to store and maintain the mammoth new light-rail vehicles it would use to modernize the city’s trolley system.

And then Amazon beat them to it, with more money. Much more.

The area’s political leaders lined up to favor Amazon; neighbors say they were not consulted or even aware of it before the deal was done.

What next?

The e-retail behemoth plans to build a “last mile” warehouse on land at 6901 Elmwood Ave. to load and dispatch light delivery vans, saying it would create 300 to 500 permanent jobs paying a minimum of $15 an hour.

Meanwhile, SEPTA was left scrambling for a new location to keep its $1.8 billion trolley project on track. Among the alternative sites under consideration for the trolley facility is at least part of the Penrose Plaza shopping center at Island Avenue and Lindbergh Boulevard, according to residents and elected officials.

SEPTA has declined to say what its real estate plans are for the trolley project, but transit agency officials say they’re studying several options and are 100% committed to moving the long-planned improvements forward.

“That land has been vacant for, what, 20 years?” said State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.). “So I’m supposed to support the possibility of a trolley-car project over jobs this community needs right now? SEPTA can’t tie up the land and maybe get it done sometime.”

That’s myopic, say public transit advocates, urbanists, and some in the neighborhood who cite how Amazon can undercut local business and the physically demanding, high-turnover jobs offered at its warehouses — compared with the economic good a faster, more reliable trolley network could bring.

Williams said “people actually from the community,” energized in recent years by immigrants from Liberia and Southeast Asia, are glad for the warehouse plan.

“It’s not right, and it’s frankly elitist” for activists who live elsewhere to scoff at Amazon jobs, he said.

“I’ve lived here my entire life, and I’m disgusted,” said Stephen “Steph” Drain, a community organizer in Southwest Philadelphia with the Working Families Party, a progressive political organization. He decried a “corporatist deal” he said is all too common in the city.

He regularly canvasses people in the neighborhood and says they understand better trolley service would increase their mobility and access to opportunities. Drain criticized SEPTA for not doing enough community outreach to build support and for backing off its plan to use eminent domain.

‘”SEPTA never pushed back. It seemed like they were not fighting for this,” Drain said, adding that the Amazon deal was a familiar case of residents having their voices excluded from development discussions.

“People are tired,” he said. “Nobody thinks they can do anything about it. It’s the constant struggle of being Black in America is what it is.”

SEPTA had offered $5.7 million for the Elmwood Avenue property, which was once home to a General Electric plant that made switching gear and circuit breakers. The current owner rejected that bid, and the authority’s board authorized eminent domain, which allows government agencies to pay fair market value for properties needed for public projects.

General manager Leslie S. Richards said Amazon’s interest drove up the price exponentially, and if SEPTA moved to take it, the courts would likely make it pay a much higher price.

“This is a vital project for us,” Richards said. “And we’re putting our money where our mouth is, that’s for sure.”

Trolleys largely run between West Philadelphia and Center City, with the exception of a line on Girard Avenue, and before COVID-19, they got more use than any single bus route or most Regional Rail lines. Almost 80,000 people used the trolleys each weekday, and half of SEPTA’s 10 most used routes across all modes of travel were trolley lines.

SEPTA recently proposed spending $203 million over the next 12 years on trolley modernization, including $30 million over fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1. It would be a big increase in the agency’s financial commitment, and the numbers encouraged trolley supporters.

Still, it’s a relatively small part of the projected cost and depends on securing funding from federal grants and other sources — common on big transportation infrastructure projects.

Most of Eastwick, built on Schuylkill bottomland and dredge spoils, lies in a floodplain. In Tropical Storm Isaias last year, parts of the neighborhood were under eight feet of water, and 300 people were driven from their homes.

“Climate change is upon us,” said Carolyn Moseley, a leader in the Eastwick United civic group. “We know we’re going to flood again. We just don’t know when.”

The site of the former GE plant is on relatively high ground, but Penrose Plaza and other alternatives for the trolley project are not. As a result, the site likely would need to be raised, which can be engineered but could increase the project’s cost. Housing $1 billion of new trolley vehicles without hardening a site against floodwater is risky, as NJ Transit discovered during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when unprotected railcars were damaged in their yards.

Moseley says good transit is more important than another Amazon warehouse and notes that SEPTA provides people with careers, not just jobs. But she does have one concern, in the event the Penrose shopping strip is used: The ShopRite there is the neighborhood’s only supermarket.

“Are we going to have a food desert?” Moseley asked.

Trolley supporters say repairs and upgrades are sorely needed and deserved, because the street cars serve some of SEPTA’s most loyal customers.

“We see year after year, Regional Rail gets all this investment. I’d like to see some equity,” said Will Tung, a Kingsessing resident and member of 5th Square, a group that pushes for policy changes in transportation and land use in the city.

Tung and his family use the trolley for errands and visiting, and he likes to commute by trolley to get to his job in Chinatown. Sometimes, he said, trolley breakdowns, crowding, and even blockages from double-parked cars mean he can bike to work faster.

The SEPTA trolley plan envisions fewer stops with passenger shelters, along with bigger, faster, and more accessible new street cars that would carry up to 100 people comfortably, compared with the 75-person capacity of today’s models, which date from the Reagan administration. Updated cars would also eliminate steep steps and narrow doors that make boarding a trolley almost impossible for many with disabilities — and difficult for anyone managing a child in arms or packages.

“I hope my kid, if she chooses to live in Southwest Philly, will someday be able to take a modern trolley on the same route I did,” Tung said.