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Plans for a train line to King of Prussia are moving forward. How to pay for it remains a huge question mark

There's a big question mark around how the rail line will be funded.

Artist's rendering of Norristown High Speed Line's King of Prussia Rail extension traveling along Mall Boulevard. Credit: SEPTA
Artist's rendering of Norristown High Speed Line's King of Prussia Rail extension traveling along Mall Boulevard. Credit: SEPTARead moreSEPTA

The proposed King of Prussia rail project promises transit access to one of the region’s biggest job centers, an economic boost — and a bill of about $1.2 billion that planners aren’t quite sure how they’ll pay.

Making the rail real will require “many sources of funding," said Elizabeth Smith, SEPTA’s manager of long-term planning. A federal grant will almost certainly be necessary, but that will pay for half the cost, at most. Funding the balance remains an open question, but one that needs an answer. SEPTA may begin pursuing federal money as soon as 2021.

There are big obstacles to the project, though. State officials say their ability to contribute money may be limited, and a lawsuit that challenges the very core of how public transit is funded in Pennsylvania could derail the project entirely.

“Right now, the reality is, we’re not in a position to dedicate new funding to new projects,” said Jennie Granger, the state Transportation Department’s deputy secretary for multi-modal transportation. “We’re looking at how we regain our current funding, just at that, not at expansion projects.”

More information about funding may become available by the end of the year, when SEPTA expects to release a 20-year financial plan that should include a strategy to pay for the rail extension without affecting routine capital and operating budgets.

>>READ MORE: King of Prussia rail line will be 5 miles. So why is SEPTA on a 10-year plan?

In January, SEPTA’s board approved $7 million for the engineering firm HNTB, which is also doing the feasibility study for an extension of the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard, to come up with more detailed plans for the elevated tracks’ structure, storm-water management, stations, and power distribution. SEPTA also is surveying the ground the line will cover. One of the elements that it hopes to gain information about is the water-soluble limestone underground, a soft stone that will complicate construction. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, meanwhile, in January released a review of infrastructure improvements needed in Upper Merion to make the space around the proposed train stops more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

The rail extension, a five-mile addition to the Norristown High-Speed Line that would bring rail service to the King of Prussia Mall and a growing business park, has been in development since 2012. Advocates for the project note that King of Prussia has become an employment hub second only to Philadelphia, with 60,000 workers and 7.6 million square feet of office space.

“We’re so convinced that this rail project will really not only transform the Philadelphia region in terms of dramatically improving its productivity," said Jerry Sweeney, chief executive at Brandywine Realty Trust and chairman of the KOP Rail Coalition Advisory Committee, "but really be a great catalyst for regional competitiveness.”

The need for a federal grant is a given, SEPTA officials said, but there’s no certainty the agency will get it.

“Spending so much time that they’re just going to say, ‘Oh, well, we didn’t get this grant,’” said Dan Cowhey, a leader of the NoKOP Rail opposition group. “That’s where a lot of the concern is when it comes to funding.”

SEPTA officials, though, anticipate ridership estimates for the project — 9,500 more trips each day than the Norristown High Speed Line now handles — will qualify them for a New Starts grant through the Federal Transit Administration, possibly by 2021. That will likely cover no more than half the project’s cost, and SEPTA is in the paradoxical position of having to make progress on the development to qualify for the money to pay for it. SEPTA must complete a final environmental impact statement, due late this year or early 2020, and 30 percent of the engineering work. SEPTA also must have $600 million committed before applying for federal funds. SEPTA is paying for the development work with a $20 million grant received more than a decade ago.

>>READ MORE: Businesses bullish for KoP rail as neighbors push for route change

The most immediate threat to the project’s funding is a lawsuit filed by a commercial truckers organization and a drivers advocacy group to challenge how Pennsylvania funds public transit. The suit contends that toll revenue from the Pennsylvania Turnpike should not be used for anything beyond that roadway itself. Pennsylvania receives about $450 million each year through toll revenue, and SEPTA receives more than 75 percent of that. The suit’s success would likely be catastrophic for the rail project, SEPTA officials said, and could endanger even the ability to fund basic maintenance.

Even without that litigation, Granger said, the state’s ability to contribute significantly to the rail project would be limited. “This initiative is above and beyond, even with our turnpike funding, what we really have available to spend,” she said.

Montgomery County officials support the project, said Matthew Edmond, section chief of transportation for the county, but had not yet begun exploring what role the county might play in contributing money.

“We’re just waiting for the right time to arrive so that we can have the discussion,” Edmond said. “We think the project’s very feasible, and we think it’s going to happen, but obviously a big piece of it is figuring out the funding.”

To meet SEPTA’s timeline, the county would likely need specifics on what its local match should be by summer 2020, he said.

Upper Merion Township administration didn’t reply to calls for comment on funding, and the five township supervisors did not reply to emails.

The state’s reticence, though, isn’t a deterrent, Smith said. She doesn’t expect to rely of the Department of Transportation to cover a large portion of the $600 million needed. The KOP Rail Coalition Advisory Committee was committed to assisting in the search for money, Sweeney said, and he raised the possibility of public/private partnerships.

Meanwhile, moving forward with design and engineering brings SEPTA closer to a more firm understanding of what kind of funding it will need, Smith said.

“As we hit each milestone ... we’re going to get a better, more accurate cost estimate,” she said. “We should have a very good idea in 2020 of how this project moves forward."