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If King of Prussia rail extension happens, its hometown won’t help pay for it

Some Upper Merion officials have great ambivalence toward the long-planned rail project, but SEPTA says it can find the money to make the project happen.

Artist’s rendering of Norristown High Speed Line’s King of Prussia Rail extension traveling along Mall Boulevard.
Artist’s rendering of Norristown High Speed Line’s King of Prussia Rail extension traveling along Mall Boulevard.Read moreSEPTA

As SEPTA prepares to seek local funding for a $1.2 billion rail extension to King of Prussia, the community that will host the new tracks, Upper Merion, is sending a message: Don’t look at us.

“Any organization or body which expects Upper Merion to have any type of substantive contribution is kidding itself,” Greg Waks, chairman of Upper Merion’s Board of Supervisors, said Monday.

The five-member board has concluded that the township, with an operating budget just above $40 million, doesn’t have the resources to financially support the project, he said.

Upper Merion’s unwillingness to provide funding is in itself not a significant obstacle to the project, since SEPTA didn’t anticipate seeking direct funding from the township, the transit agency said in a email statement this week. It does, however, raise questions about where money could be found to build the five-mile extension to the Norristown High Speed Line.

“Unless there is some source of federal or state funding I’m unaware of,” Waks said, “I’m skeptical that $1.2 billion is a number they could achieve.”

To qualify for the hefty federal grant that SEPTA says it needs to build the line, it must first secure state or local contributions. Given that the most the federal government will likely contribute is about half the cost, SEPTA would need to raise about $600 million. SEPTA anticipated seeking federal money as early as 2021, so the other half of the funding would need to be confirmed by next year.

The transit agency said it expected to release a 20-year financial plan at the end of this year that would provide details on paying for the rail project.

“While funding large infrastructure projects in the Philadelphia region has been historically difficult,” SEPTA stated, “many of our peer regions have found successful ways to fund these projects.”

Officials with PennDot have said the state would not likely be able to provide a large portion of the $600 million. The state’s transportation funding is under threat right now from a suit against the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, but even without the possibility of the suit costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in transit funding, the King of Prussia line is larger than what the state could support.

Montgomery County officials expressed enthusiasm for the project but also were vague about a role in funding it. Among the project’s strongest supporters are business and property owners in King of Prussia. The area is the region’s second-largest job hub next to Philadelphia, and the rail is seen as a way to make King of Prussia more accessible to workers. The head of the KOP Rail Coalition Advisory Committee, Jerry Sweeney, raised the possibility of public/private partnerships as a way to pay for the new track, but declined to discuss details.

Simon Property Group, which owns the King of Prussia Mall, sidestepped the question of whether it would assist in paying for the extension.

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

“King of Prussia Mall and Simon Property Group are fully supportive of the KOP Rail initiative," Bob Hart, the mall’s manager, said in a statement, "although we have not made financial contributions.”

The mall employs about 8,000 of the 60,000 people who work in King of Prussia.

Upper Merion’s four other commissioners did not respond to emails requesting information on their opinions on the extension, but Waks said the board has a range of opinions about the project. He also noted there was little the board could do to prevent the extension from happening.

“I don’t know if the board has one mind over this,” he said. “I don’t know exactly how much enthusiasm there is for this project.”