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SEPTA’s new Wissahickon bus station promises better connections. But it could harm a beloved Philly landscape. | Inga Saffron

How do you insert a big bus station building into such a beloved space? Very carefully. That, unfortunately, is not how SEPTA and PennDOT have been proceeding.

This rendering shows the latest design for the new Wissahickon Transportation Center on Ridge Avenue in Manayunk. The design is meant to evoke late 19th Century train stations designed by Frank Furness for the Pennsylvania Railroad, as well as the iconic Manayunk bridge.
This rendering shows the latest design for the new Wissahickon Transportation Center on Ridge Avenue in Manayunk. The design is meant to evoke late 19th Century train stations designed by Frank Furness for the Pennsylvania Railroad, as well as the iconic Manayunk bridge.Read moreCourtesy of SEPTA

The intersection of Kelly Drive and Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia is one of the most unlikely places for a major SEPTA transportation hub. Grandly known as the Wissahickon Transportation Center, the facility is hardly more than a glorified bus shelter. Yet more than 7,000 bus riders pass through daily, making it a peer of the Temple and University City Regional Rail stations. Most commuters who change buses at the Wissahickon depot live in working-class neighborhoods in the city’s northern reaches and pass through on their way to jobs in King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting — the kind of essential jobs that can’t be done in a home office.

The intersection also happens to be one of Philadelphia’s most iconic landscapes. Although the stretch of Ridge Avenue leading to Manayunk has been junked up with highway-style retail, the area around the bus depot retains a surprisingly countrified feel. Canopies of old trees drape over the road, shading a 19th-century stone bridge and a gushing waterfall, as well as a popular barbecue joint tucked in the crook of an enormous schist grotto.

This is where the Schuylkill River meets the Wissahickon Creek, where the Kelly Drive bike path links up with the Wissahickon trails, where the hard, gridded streets of Philadelphia’s center relax into the greener, gentler neighborhoods of the Northwest. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people gather here daily for hikes, bike rides, and canoeing.

So how do you insert a big bus station building into such a beloved space?

Very carefully.

That, unfortunately, is not how SEPTA and PennDot have been proceeding. After holding a few token public meetings, the two agencies whipped up an initial design that seemed to take its cues from a highway rest stop. It was too big, yet short on amenities. Horrified by the result, a coalition of nine neighborhood civic groups pushed back and demanded changes.

SEPTA has now revised the station to the point that the design of the building is almost acceptable. Instead of a Jetsons-style space port, the main passenger area looks like a modern interpretation of a Frank Furness Main Line station, with a gently sloped hip roof and a brick-and-stone facade.

Yet the project remains deeply flawed in ways that have nothing to do with architecture. SEPTA continues to hedge on whether it will provide basic amenities, such as public restrooms and an enclosed waiting area. The project still fails to make the most of its location where the region’s most heavily used bike paths meet. Even worse, the additional road infrastructure planned for the new transportation center could undermine the area’s park-like character.

There is no doubt that improving the Wissahickon Transportation Center is crucial to SEPTA’s success, if not its survival, in a post-COVID world. Buses have always been the workhorses of SEPTA’s system, its most popular form of travel. Yet, even before the pandemic, SEPTA was losing riders because so many routes were too slow and unreliable. In 2018, SEPTA hired Jarrett Walker, a nationally recognized transit expert, to develop a strategy to improve service and lure back bus commuters. The $18.5 million transportation center is a big step in realizing that plan.

Right now, 10 bus routes circulate through the depot. But because the site is so cramped, there is barely enough room for buses to park and turnarounds are difficult. Precious minutes are wasted as buses wait for a break in the traffic so they can enter the depot.All this adds time to the length of a commute, turning what might be a 40-minute trip into an hour-long slog.

The new design would solve most of those logistical problems. To ensure that all the buses have enough room to easily maneuver, SEPTA purchased a four-acre site immediately to the north. The new facility, designed by Sowinksi Sullivan and McCormick Taylor, has two parts: a waiting area along Ridge Avenue and a three-sided depot lined with bus bays.

The arrangement, which is loosely modeled on the recently redesigned 40th Street Trolley Portal, makes it easy for commuters to get off one bus and walk quickly to the next. With 12 parking bays, SEPTA will also be able to run more buses, increasing its service on the 10 routes by 20%. The extra capacity will also allow SEPTA to enhance express bus service on Roosevelt Boulevard. Together, those measures could cut commuting times significantly.

But there is a heavy price to pay for this efficiency. To ensure that buses don’t get held up by traffic, PennDot wants to widen Ridge Avenue — already a speedway — from four lanes to seven. The plan calls for two drop-off, or lay-by, lanes that would allow buses to stop for passengers without entering the transportation center, as well as a dedicated left-turn lane into the facility. “It will improve the traffic flow for everyone,” William Kunkle, the SEPTA official managing the project, told me.

Ridge Avenue can hardly be described as a country road now. But the expansion to seven lanes will almost certainly make it feel like a highway.

While only a short stretch of Ridge Avenue would be affected — between Kelly Drive and the station — the road will widen at the point where cyclists and hikers cross the road to enter the Wissahickon trails.

To create the drop-off lane on the northbound side of Ridge Avenue, PennDot and SEPTA plan to demolish the building that now houses Deke’s Bar-B-Que, along with its tree-shaded array of picnic tables. Because the Deke’s site is so narrow, SEPTA may also have to remove some of the schist boulders that form the charming grotto behind the building and build a long retaining wall in front of the grotto.

Are these extra lanes really the only way to ensure that SEPTA’s new transportation center functions effectively? Or, is the proposed widening the product of an engineering mind-set, one bent on ensuring that motorists never get stuck behind a bus? While it may be a little of both, it seems clear the two agencies never factored the loss of this distinctive landscape into their calculations.

Ironically, the improvements at the Wissahickon Transportation Center have long been known as the “Gateway Project.” But the current design does little “to create a good gateway,” argues John Hunter, a local architect and civic activist who has participated in the discussions with SEPTA.

The head of the city Art Commission, Alan Greenberger, who has been mediating the discussions between SEPTA and the civic groups, says he’s particularly concerned about the treatment of the grotto next to the entrance to the Wissahickon trails. “People come there to watch the waterfall. It needs to be nicer, greener, more park-like,” says Greenberger.

The problems go beyond the depot’s relationship with its surroundings. SEPTA has been so focused on the nuts-and-bolts challenges of cutting travel times that it has lost sight of its customers' other needs and risks appearing insensitive to its working-class bus riders.

For instance, the agency has given conflicting signals about whether the new building will have public restrooms and a climate-controlled waiting room. Even though space has been earmarked in the plans for both functions, SEPTA argues that such amenities are difficult to manage, and it claims it can’t afford to have a staffer there to oversee them. Instead, SEPTA wants to hand over the responsibility to a private snack bar operator — that is, assuming it can find a tenant.

The trouble with this explanation is that SEPTA typically provides those amenities in its large rail stations. In the weird universe that is SEPTA, bus transfer stations do not qualify for the same amenities as destination stations, like its Regional Rail stations, according to its vice president for public affairs Francis E. Kelly.

That rule applies even though the Wissahickon Transportation Center is just as heavily used as many rail stations. The effect of this rigid policy is a form of discrimination, since SEPTA’s bus riders tend to be poorer and less white than its rail passengers. If those amenities are left out, the new station will merely be a fancier version of the open-air shelter than now exists.

The restroom issue is a sign of how siloed this project has become. At the same time SEPTA has been designing the new station, the city has been working on a parallel project to fill in a missing piece in the region’s bike network. The quarter-mile long trail segment would connect the Kelly Drive path to the trails that lead to Manayunk and Lower Merion. The project will transform the intersection into the bicycling equivalent of a major highway interchange.

Yet not enough has been done to maximize the potential of having that bicycle interchange next to a major transit hub. Although the city hopes to create a trailhead building at the Kelly-and-Ridge intersection to house amenities — like restrooms and a snack bar — it has no money for the project. But properly equipped, SEPTA’s new bus station could do double duty and provide those much-needed services.

City planners and local civic groups are still battling with SEPTA for improvements. SEPTA has promised to hold one more meeting before completing its design and beginning construction. But there are still a lot of issues to be resolved. If SEPTA really hopes to provide a quality service that will convince people to ditch their cars, it can’t just think in terms of moving buses. It has to remember that its job is really about moving people.