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SEPTA urged to ‘Fix the 15’ and improve communication as historic trolley line gets bus service

“We know that you love the trolleys,” said SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards. “I love the trolleys, too.” The plan is to bring them back.

A transit customer wearing a mask to stay warm waits to board the trolley at the intersection of Girard Avenue and Front Street in Fishtown.
A transit customer wearing a mask to stay warm waits to board the trolley at the intersection of Girard Avenue and Front Street in Fishtown.Read moreMargo Reed

Transit advocates frustrated in part over a lack of communication surrounding changes to the historic Route 15 trolleys beginning Sunday gave SEPTA’s board a clear message Thursday: “Fix the 15.”

Officials listened to a handful of people who spoke to a packed room, where supporters held signs reflecting the message from 5th Square, an urbanist political action committee, days after the transportation authority said the line stretching from 63rd and Girard to Richmond and Westmoreland would be served by buses as its PCC II streetcars undergo evaluation and maintenance for at least a year.

“SEPTA functions with the trust of its riders,” Michael Noda, 36, of Francisville, a Route 15 rider involved with 5th Square, told the board. “When something like this, which should have been — obviously it was coming — should have been announced weeks ago, is sprung on the public with five days’ notice, it erodes that trust.”

Chairman Pasquale T. “Pat” Deon expressed SEPTA’s commitment to the line and said, “Better communication is always a goal.” Current and future PennDot construction was a contributing factor to why the trolleys are to be temporarily halted.

“We’re asking you to live with some construction, which I understand is inconvenient, but know we are going to be condensing the time by doing the trolley rehab at the same time, and then when the construction is done, the trolleys will come back — and they are coming back,” said Leslie S. Richards, SEPTA’s new general manager, at her first board meeting in the role. “We know that you love the trolleys. I love the trolleys, too.”

SEPTA hopes to increase the trolleys’ longevity as it looks to make upgrades throughout its network.

Daniel Trubman, 32, of Northwest Philly, transit committee co-chair of 5th Square, urged the board to prioritize trolley modernization.

“The news we’ve learned over the last few days has only heightened my concerns that some or all the fleet won’t make it until the mid-2030s,” Trubman said. Richards called trolley modernization a priority.

Others at the meeting asked for improved communication moving forward and expressed concerns on how crowding and speeds would be affected by busing along Route 15.

The streetcars were built in the late 1940s and saw an overhaul in 2002, according to a 2019 Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) report examining modernization efforts for Route 15 between Frankford Avenue and Broad Street.

Replacement buses have been used before on the route. Eighteen of the historic cars are in the fleet, but just four are operational, according to SEPTA.

“SEPTA staff report that buses frequently substitute for trolleys on Route 15 due to mechanical failures and expressed doubts that all of the PCC-II’s will remain operational between today and trolley modernization,” noted the DVRPC analysis, which included a microsimulation of curbside bus service for the portion of the route.

“I’m feeling better now than I did this morning, and I felt better this morning than I did on Tuesday,” Noda said, when speculation left Route 15 riders and transit advocates filling in the blanks after hearing whispers of the coming changes.

Scott Sauer, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for operations, said Thursday’s remarks weren’t unexpected.

“I know how passionate Philadelphians are about the trolleys, so any decision we make that concerns the operation of the trolleys is going to be scrutinized and explored ... but we welcome it,” he said. “They’re our stakeholders, and I value their input, and it’ll help us get better.”