Transportation: Pausing the KOP Rail Reopens Possibilities for New Transit Priorities

SEPTA estimated that the King of Prussia extension would’ve carried nearly 10,000 riders per day. (Ukenye/PN)

Councilmember At-Large Isaiah Thomas was never a fan of SEPTA’s plan to spend billions of dollars to extend the Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia, a project the agency began planning in 2012.

“SEPTA is talking about building a $2 billion transit line to take people to different parts of the surrounding areas,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, if it were up to us in Philadelphia, we wouldn’t spend $2 billion on that.”

However, following the transit agency’s decision to halt the plan after not receiving a grant from the federal government to cover the project’s growing costs, Thomas’ tone changed as he believes there’s an opportunity to pursue other projects that could help city residents. One of those efforts could be the Roosevelt Boulevard subway.

“The cancellation of the King of Prussia expansion was a welcome development,” Thomas wrote in a statement to Philadelphia Neighborhoods. “Hopefully, it frees up some of SEPTA’s capital funding to be more adequately invested to better Philadelphians’ lives.”

Thomas and many transit advocates were supportive of SEPTA’s decision to halt the rail extension after criticizing the transit agency for catering to suburban riders at the expense of projects likely to benefit city residents, which make up the majority of the system’s riders.

SEPTA estimated that the King of Prussia extension would carry nearly 10,000 riders per day once completed. Just two months ago, the agency awarded a nearly $125 million contract to HNTB Corp., an engineering and architectural firm, to finalize the project’s design. While the agency hasn’t provided plans for how they’ll spend the roughly $340 million they have left over from the project, the funds could be used for a variety of infrastructure improvements.

Pausing the project highlights an opportunity to address the long list of issues that transit advocates have continuously lamented for years regarding the system’s performance and attempts to modernize.

“We shouldn’t be waiting on our laurels,” said Jay Arzu, a transit advocate and doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. “And in terms of effectiveness, the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway would probably be one of the most effective transportation projects you can build in the country.”

The Roosevelt Boulevard subway line has been debated for decades as a viable way to boost ridership, reduce car traffic and emissions, and spur transit-oriented development along one of the deadliest roads in the country. Although it remains a hypothetical idea for now, the subway project got additional life when Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021, freeing up billions in federal funding for cities to improve their transit systems. If completed, the subway could carry as many 125,000 riders and divert nearly 80,000 car trips, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

In January, Leslie S. Richards, SEPTA’s General Manager and CEO, claimed there was no way to proceed with the Roosevelt Boulevard proposal due to the lack of funding.  Estimates put the construction costs at nearly $3 billion, on par with the KOP rail line.

Despite the skepticism from SEPTA officials, Arzu, who helped revive discussion surrounding the project, believes the inability to fund the King of Prussia extension also highlights the necessity to change how the transit agency is funded.

“We need to figure out what we need to do to make SEPTA a system that everyone wants to use, [including] our suburban communities or urban communities, and to look at better funding mechanisms so that we can actually have a SEPTA that can afford more capital projects,” Arzu said.

Rather than being funded through annual appropriations from City Council, SEPTA only receives routine funding through the revenue it generates from fares as well as additional state mechanisms, like the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

The agency’s 2021 capital budget was only half of the funding received by transit systems in Washington D.C. and Boston, Metro Philadelphia reported.

Thomas expressed frustration in the lack of power that City Council has over SEPTA, limiting their ability to effectively guide the agency toward projects that serve the residents they represent.

“We don’t have the jurisdiction to be able to move SEPTA in a way that we feel like is best,” Thomas said.

If neither megaproject — the KOP line or Roosevelt Boulevard subway — moves forward , Arzu still believes the transit system can benefit by using the leftover funding to improve Regional Rail.

In 2021, the agency unveiled “Reimaging Regional Rail”, a series of steps to improve service by increasing the daily train frequency to pivot away from being a primarily commuter-focused option for riders.

“Reimagined Regional Rail is going to change our commuter rail system into an actual regional rail system that will have faster service, more frequent service, which is important,” Arzu said.

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