PlanPhilly

It's been a bumpy ride. Philly Transportation: A Year in Review

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s only natural to look back and reflect. Virtually every news story you’ll read this week, including this one, is some variant of “A Year in Review.”

I’ve been unable to stifle that contemplative impulse, which has attacked from multiple angles. You see, I started covering the transportation beat last December.This isn’t just Philly Transportation: A Year in Review; it’s Jim Saksa, Transportation Reporter: A Year in Review.

For my first story on the transportation beat here at PlanPhilly, I covered a DRPA board meeting, writing about budget approvals, postponed toll increases and controversial legal fees. Nailed it, I thought.

Not quite.

I didn’t so much nail the story as totally screw it (both are fasteners). I completely missed the DRPA Board’s decision to study reopening Franklin Square Station. Hell, I didn’t even know there was a Franklin Square Station.

So, it’s safe to say I’ve learned a lot in the past year; I hope our readers have, too.

In some ways, transportation in Philly has come a long way, finally able to accelerate some projects fueled by increased state funding from Act 89, which passed in 2013, began in 2014 and really took off in 2015.

In other ways, transportation has been stuck in neutral, with plans making a lot of noise but going nowhere fast. And in a few cases, projects slammed on the breaks or even slipped into reverse.  

GREEN LIGHT

Indego: Indego is in some ways the quintessential Philadelphia transportation story: Philly was late to the bike share game, but once we got in it, we decided to put everyone else to shame.

Other cities got bike shares years before Philly: DC in 2010, Boston in 2011, New York City in 2013.  Hell, even places like Columbus, Ohio, Broward County, Florida, and Fargo, North Dakota, beat us to it.

Once we finally got Bike Share in April, we went all in. Philly Bike Share was rechristened Indego after Independence Blue Cross graced it with their corporate benevolence/marketing budget. The Phanatic showed up. Soon enough, Philadelphians set ridership records for bike share programs.

But Philly wasn’t content with building another plaything for wealthy white folks. Indego is the first U.S. bike share program explicitly designed to serve low-income communities, with a third of its docking stations in those neighborhoods. Three million dollars in grants were set aside to study best practices based on the effort—Philadelphia was to be a city upon a hill, the eyes of all bike sharers upon us as Indego pedaled past the potholes of inequity.  

So far, those results have been mixed. But next spring, twenty-four new docking stations will open, joining the current total of 73. As the number of stations in neighborhoods outside Center City and University City grow, creating real networks in those places rather than a few one-off locations, the hope is that Indego’s usage among underserved populations will expand with it.

Manayunk Bridge and trails: You PlanPhilly readers sure do love trails. Or at least stories about new trails—they’re some of our biggest traffic drivers and most heavily shared stories on social media.

Go on, you can admit that you like the idea of a trail more than you actually use a trail. “Oh, this weekend?” You begin in response to a coworker’s casual Friday afternoon inquiry, “I’m thinking about biking out to Valley Forge, maybe catching that Stravinsky performance at the Kimmel and watching the Sunday matinee at Fringe Arts … how about you?”

But we all know what you’ll do when the weekend actually arrives: binge watch Netflix until your lower extremities go numb and yell obscenities about the Eagles.

Even if you're only a light trail user, 2015 had lots to cheer: The Manayunk Bridge’s rebirth as a trail, federal TIGER grants funding another bridge’s repurposingnew trails opened, better entrances to old trails opened, and plenty more planned. Jared Brey covers all the big developments along the Delaware waterfront here.

And 2016 may be the year the city’s most anticipated trail project will finally happen: the Reading Viaduct Rail Park got a little bit closer to breaking ground in 2015.

30th Street Station: Planning for a big, bold, new district to be built over the rail yards just north of 30th Street Station began in 2015. The public weighed competing visions and told planners what they’d like to see.

This project remains a long, long way off. It’ll cost billions to do. The only way that even begins to make financial sense will be if the land values in the neighborhoods around it, Powelton Village and Mantua, increase dramatically and become some of the most expensive in the city.

YELLOW LIGHT! SPEED UP TO MAKE THE LIGHT OR HIT THE BRAKES

Positive Train Control: Amtrak finished implementing the safety system in December, before the original year-end deadline, a deadline nearly every other railroad in the U.S. was blowing so badly, Congress was forced to extend it.

Sadly, on time wasn’t fast enough. In May, Amtrak 188 derailed while going more than 100 mph around the Frankford Curve. If that stretch of track had PTC technology, it would have automatically slowed the train and prevented the derailment.

SEPTA is set to finish its PTC work in January. The regional rail operator built new tracks on its West Trenton line to separate itself from the freight lines it used to lease from CSX. SEPTA spent $330 million implementing PTC while other operators made excuses for their delays.

Bike Infrastructure: Once again, Philadelphia’s bicycle infrastructure improved … marginally. We got 14 miles of new bike lanes, including the city’s first on-street protected bike lanes on Ryan Avenue and Frankford Avenue in the Northeast.

If you look at the map below from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, it seems like Center City saw a bunch of improvement, at first glance. But those are merely old lanes restriped with fresh paint. There was little actual expansion of bike lanes in Center City, South Philly and West Philly—the three neighborhoods where population density and proximity to employment makes bicycling a realistic option for commuters.

CORRECTION: Astute reader Ethan Soloman pointed out that a lot of the Center City bike lanes that were supposed to be restriped didn't even get that. As someone who bikes on Pine and Spruce nearly daily, and ride along Delaware Avenue frequently, I have no excuse for missing this. 

    • 2015 Bike Infrastructure Improvements
      2015 Bike Infrastructure Improvements

Long-stalled projects, like protected lanes for JFK Boulevard and West Market Street, stayed stalled.

Bike parking, the other major piece of bike infrastructure, also saw little improvement. No new bike corrals were added so far this year, although rumor has it that the beloved watering hole Bob and Barbara’s may install a long-sought-after corral just before 2015 shuffles off this temporal coil.

TROLLEYS! WE’RE GETTING TROLLEYS! No, we aren’t, despite the excited headlines you might have read elsewhere. Not any time soon, at least. Sorry to disappoint. But the political realities are pretty straightforward: new trolleys will require new stations or stops along the trolley surface routes.

Those are dozens of neighborhoods—many outside of Philly—that SEPTA will need to negotiate with for the removal or modification of parking spots, travel lanes and even some bike lanes. It’ll cost hundreds of millions for construction. We still need initial design plans, environmental studies, engineering studies, and final design plans before the project is ready to be put out to bid (or bids—a job this big might be better off split into a handful of smaller projects).

Ben Franklin Bridge Ramp: Unlike a lot of similarly sized spans, the Ben Franklin Bridge has a pedestrian and bicycle walkway, offering joggers and cyclists an artificial hill to climb and photographers fantastic views of the city skyline.

But the Camden side of the bridge ends with a stairwell, inaccessible to wheelchairs and annoying to bicyclists. Plans to build a new ramp have been set. Replacing that ramp would cost about $3 million. This year, the project got another grant—we’re halfway there. So close!

And yet, so far. This year, DRPA approved reinstituting a toll discount for frequent commuters that’ll cost $6.4 million. The agency remains $1.5 billion in debt. And over the last decade or so, it has spent $1.5 million in consulting fees to explore reopening PATCO’s Franklin Square Station, which every study has said would ultimately reduce ridership on PATCO and increase operating costs by hundreds of thousands annually.

Plans stuck in planning: There were a few very exciting projects that advanced in planning stages this year.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society released a fantastic-looking vision to overhaul the entrance to the Ben Franklin Bridge, making Isamu Noguchi’s A Bolt of Lightning accessible to pedestrians. That project is advancing through an engineering stage right now. If insurmountable engineering challenges don’t emerge, we might expect final design to begin sometime in 2016, setting the stage for finding funds and building construction in 2017.

Just a block down the road, the DVRPC released preliminary plans for removing some lanes from Race Street between 6th and 8th. The road widens to five and then six lanes as it approaches the Ben Franklin, because that was how everyone accessed the bridge before the Vine Street Expressway opened. Now it’s just an unnecessarily dangerous, fast-moving river of traffic between Franklin Square and Old City.

Lots of plans excite the imagination. But if they do little else but that, they’re ultimately not much more than a distraction.

Despite continued and frequent pedestrian deaths tragically signaling the desperate need for some sort of intervention on Roosevelt Boulevard, plans continue to barely inch along.

The DVRPC released a feasibility study examining three alternative uses for the City Branch, that trench/tunnel that runs along the Ben Franklin Parkway and ultimately connects to the Reading Viaduct. The recommendation: none of the above. The City Branch is seemingly full of potential as a unique urban space, but no single use has emerged as the obvious choice to develop what is now a bit of extra parking for city employees. It could be great for a light transit line, but is that needed along the Parkway when adding a bus line could accomplish the same? Some say turn it into a trail, but do we want to take pedestrians and cyclists below grade and away from the cultural institutions that line the area?

Advocates for extending the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard held a rally this year packed with big name politicians—Senators! Mayors-to-be!—but devoid of anything really worth reporting. Extending the BSL that short distance would cost upwards of $500 million, if not more.

Meanwhile, plans to extend the Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia also advanced. Construction for that project is estimated around $1 billion. To cover the planning costs of this extension, SEPTA has used federal planning grants that were originally given to plan a rail line up to the Lehigh Valley.

Left unsaid: SEPTA could get federal New Starts funding to cover around half the construction costs of either the BSL extension or the NHSL extension. But probably not both, at least not at the same time. At some point, one of these projects will need to emerge as the preferred one, the one the region really wants. In recent years, the SEPTA board has played nice, and the city vs. suburb divisions have faded from the forefront. That might not last.

SEPTA rolls on...: SEPTA’s General Manager, Joe Casey, retired this year, replaced by his long-time top deputy, Jeff Knueppel.

Casey undoubtedly left SEPTA better than he found it. During his tenure, finances and customer relations both improved. SEPTA began winning awards and receiving accolades. Under Casey’s tenure, SEPTA stopped being a joke. Almost everything written about Casey has been downright hagiographic.

So Knueppel has a tough act to follow, to put it mildly. Casey, who has also received credit for selling Act 89 to Harrisburg, put SEPTA on sound financial footing, setting Knueppel to expand the transit system for the first time in decades. Knueppel likes to say he likes to build things; he’ll be judged on how good a job he does doing that.

...And so does the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia: The Bicycle Coalition went through its own massive leadership change, seeing Executive Director Alex Doty ride on to the League of American Bicyclists. Doty oversaw the Bike Coalition’s huge growth in terms of staff and influence over the last 13 years.

Following the Better Mobility Bike Forum, moderator Patrick Kerkstra hailed the “bicycle lobby” as victors, citing commitments from all the candidates – including Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney – to Complete Streets and Vision Zero policies. Kerkstra could have simply declared victory for the Bike Coalition, and, really, Doty.

(I called the commitments pandering; we’ll see if Clarena Tolson, the incoming deputy managing director for infrastructure and transportation, can deliver on Kenney’s campaign promises.)

While many organizations and advocates have touched upon these safety issues, it’s been Doty’s Bike Coalition that has most steadily banged on this drum.

Under Doty’s leadership, the Coalition worked with local government, rather than agitate against it, and received a number of grants to oversee and implement plans and studies related to urban cycling.  Some critics—complaining loudly whenever other cities’ bike infrastructure appears to improve faster than here—say Philadelphia needs more vocal advocates for bike infrastructure.

Sarah Clark Stuart has been named interim director. If she keeps the job, it’ll likely mean a continuation of the Bike Coalition’s current strategy. As with Knueppel at SEPTA, it’s too early to judge.

RED! IT’S ALWAYS RED!

SEPTA Key: Oh, SEPTA Key, how you toy with our emotions. Pilot testing began in the spring, and everyone got downright giddy at the prospect of scrapping tokens for a smart card system by the end of the year. But like an old-time aviator flying through a swarm of locusts, the pilot hit hundreds of bugs and SEPTA Key’s takeoff was postponed once again.

Washington AvenueWashington Avenue. It seems straightforward enough: just a busy road with rapidly fading lane markers in need of a new paint job. But that innocuous sounding project drove headfirst into a sinkhole of competing economic forces and gentrification politics.

Some owners of the warehouses, construction supply depots and other light industrial uses want the road to remain a free-wheeling amalgamation of highway and loading dock. Safety-conscious neighbors and developers want a road diet to slow traffic, improved bike lanes, and a crack down on the street’s parking free-for-all.

The result: Deadlock. The existing stripes got a touch-up while local politicians abdicated responsibility by refusing to back either side. Given the vituperation on both sides of this mess, though, I can’t say that I blame them.

Toynbee Tiles: Depending on who you ask, the mysterious Toynbee Tiler has used Philadelphia’s pavement either as a blank canvas for his idiosyncratic form of street art, or as a pre-Internet message board for his insane ramblings. Either way, the Toynbee Tiles have fascinated many of us.

I wrote about an ongoing effort by the City of Philadelphia’s Streets Department to preserve some tiles for posterity’s sake in the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent’s collections. The big challenge: removing the tiles from asphalt on the cheap and easy.

Since that story ran, some architectural conservationists reached out, offering to help. But a few months later, and things remain at a stand still. Streets Commissioner David Perri is moving on to run Licenses and Inspections. Will incoming Commissioner Donald Carlton take up this quirky quest? As with the identity of the Toynbee Tiler, all we can say about that is: Who knows?

About the author

Jim Saksa, Reporter

Jim Saksa is PlanPhilly's transportation reporter, which means he focuses on how Philly bikes, walks, drives, rolls, and rides around the region. 

Jim lives in Point Breeze and has also written for Slate, Philadelphia City Paper, and Technical.ly Philly. He tweets @Saksappeal and you can reach him at jsaksa@whyy.org.



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