A controversial transit project near Philadelphia has attracted controversy since it was first proposed more than a half-century ago, but it has apparently not attracted enough funding. It’s the King of Prussia Rail Project (KOP Rail), a light rail line that would have branched westward from the existing Norristown High-Speed Line, which runs between West Philadelphia and Norristown and collects power through a third rail. Transit officials have backed it for decades, off and on, while some advocates have pushed it and others criticized it sharply, while not always agreeing on the reason for doing so.
In a commentary posted here on Oct. 25, 2021, I questioned whether an expensive line to sprawl and a mall in an area already well-served by buses was a wise use of available funds, or would another project be more useful.
The FTA has now weighed in, and it KO’d KOP Rail. On Friday, March 17, SEPTA announced on its website that the project had not been recommended for New Starts funding in fiscal year 2024: “SEPTA is pausing the King of Prussia project following further review of rising costs, which have been exacerbated by inflation and high interest rates. The project is not recommended for federal New Starts funding in Fiscal Year 2024, and SEPTA will use resources that had been allocated for KOP Rail to bolster essential infrastructure work. A major factor preventing KOP Rail from advancing is the lack of flexibility in SEPTA’s capital budget. In discussions this week, the FTA raised concerns about whether SEPTA could fund its share of the project, which would include any cost overruns.”
It is standard practice with any FTA FFGA (Full Funding Grant Agreement) that the federal share is capped, and the agency or other local funders must pay for any cost overruns.
SEPTA went on to explain how quickly the cost of the project has risen: “With each year of delay, the cost of KOP Rail increases by approximately $100 million. As inflation and higher interest rates have set in, those numbers accelerated further. From August 2020 to August 2022, the project estimate increased from $2.08 billion to $2.6 billion. The estimate now stands at $3.2 billion.” While SEPTA did not mention percentage increases, the cost went up by 25% in the two-year period ending last August and by an additional 23% in the past seven months, which would mean an annualized increase of more than 39%.
The bad news from the FTA came less than one month after the agency had announced a contract for final design on the project on Feb. 23. The agreement with HNTB Corp. for basic design and construction documentation (Phase A) and construction-related services (Phase B) would have cost $124,999,678, only $322 less than $125 million SEPTA had committed from its $390 million FY2023 capital budget for the project. SEPTA was seeking a GIG (Capital Investment Grant) for up to 60% of the entire project cost.
The FTA had changed its mind about the project during the past 26 months, because it issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision (FEIS/ROD) on Jan. 14, 2021. The FTA statement from that time said: “‘This timely action is an example of DOT’s commitment to streamlined delivery of environmental reviews,’ said FTA Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams. ‘Once completed, SEPTA’s King of Prussia rail extension will address a critical need in southeastern Pennsylvania’s transportation system, connecting Center City, University City and King of Prussia—three of the largest employment centers in the region.’”
Even though the KOP Rail project has been returned to the shelf, SEPTA acknowledges that there will still be access there on several bus routes, as listed in the “Destinations” section: “King of Prussia is well served by SEPTA Suburban Division Bus Routes 92, 95, 99, 123, 124, 125, and 139. All of these routes stop at the King of Prussia Transit Center at the King of Prussia Mall.” The site mentioned connecting services from other rail lines, even without the now-defunct KOP Rail project: “Even though King of Prussia isn’t serviced by direct rail access, the Paoli/Thorndale Line, Manayunk Line, and Norristown High Speed Line have stops not far from KOP.”
According to the above-quoted statement from SEPTA that announced the “pause” on the project, Leslie S. Richards, the agency’s General Manager and CEO, said, “We are disappointed. King of Prussia Rail would have delivered real benefits to our city and region by providing reliable public transportation connecting our three largest employment hubs in Center City, University City [near the University of Pennsylvania campus], and King of Prussia. It would have eased congestion on area roadways and reduced air pollution.”
Meir Rinde, a reporter for WHYY, the local NPR station, reported the event this way on the station’s affiliated website, www.billypenn.com: “In a dramatic about-face, SEPTA is pulling the plug on its controversial King of Prussia Rail project after federal officials expressed doubt that the transit agency could afford the $3 billion-plus rail extension.” He mentioned the controversial nature of the project: “The new line was championed almost exclusively by political and business leaders. King of Prussia Business’s Improvement District, created in 2011, revived a dormant, 50-year-old proposal for the rail extension, and shepherded it through a decade of community outreach and environmental review.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer was one of the project’s detractors. On March 16, the day before the FTA announced its decision, the paper ran an editorial headlined SEPTA unwisely pushes for suburban investment while improvement plans for the city languish. The editorial called for more investment in city transit, including the proposed Roosevelt Boulevard subway, rather than pushing suburban projects that would host far-lower ridership. It said: “Instead of investing in better service in Philadelphia, SEPTA’s admittedly limited capital dollars have often gone to projects in suburban areas. SEPTA recently completed a nearly $200 million project to extend Regional Rail to Wawa station in Delaware County. Yet local officials have rejected the proposed transit-oriented community that was supposed to help justify that expansion, and some residents are already complaining about the persistent sound of train horns blowing overnight. The lack of balance isn’t just unfair to Philadelphians. It is also a foolish way to invest limited transit dollars. No matter how luxurious or extensive you make public transportation in the suburbs, these areas offer significantly less potential ridership than the city. Not only that, local opposition to public transit in the suburbs often causes less effective, more expensive routing.”
SEPTA estimated that KOP Rail would have attracted about 10,000 riders per day. Local advocates claim that a subway under Roosevelt Boulevard would attract 100,000 daily riders. That project was also first proposed decades ago. Further north, advocates raised similar concerns about the recently opened “Grand Central Madison” East Side terminal for the Long Island Rail Road, which cost in excess of $11.2 billion. They raised the question of whether the money could have been better spend improving the subways instead, especially with transit ridership in New York ity exceeding that in suburban areas.
Longtime rail planner and manager Thomas R. Hickey once proposed that the PATCO line between Philadelphia and South Jersey be extended through the Norristown High Speed Line to KOP. He told Railway Age: “The point of the project is not to provide better public transportation for suburban residents. It’s to link the residents of Norristown and West Philadelphia to jobs in KOP. That area is linked to Philly through an inconsistent bus system via the Schuychyll Expressway, so the project could have benefited residents in Norristown and West Philadelphia. It will if it’s revived. These projects are cyclical and go on for a long time. New Starts projects fare terribly in the Delaware Valley. The River LINE in South Jersey did not score well on the FTA scoring, so NJ Transit paid for it. The Wawa project was funded on highway money the same way. New Starts seems to have a bias against established rail.”
Advocates in and around Philadelphia have been speaking out against the project on line, too. In an e-mail post, advocate Jerry Silverman said that he was “pleasantly shocked and overjoyed” and gave “a huge thanks to the feds for coming to their senses.” Rinde reported: “Advocates also lamented the land use around the proposed stations, which most commuters would have had to reach by car instead of by walking. The King of Prussia Mall, for example, showed no interest in building around proposed nearby stations, for example by redeveloping a parking lot into housing or office space.”
Not all advocates are pleased with the apparent end of the project, though. Longtime South Jersey advocate Jeff Marinoff complained in a blog post about a preference that SEPTA management has shown for buses. Despite SEPTA’s statements, he said, “You can be assured that there was cheering and a party was held at the SEPTA headquarters in Philadelphia.” Marinoff expressed his expectation that the agency would spend the savings realized from stopping the KOP Rail project on buses.
In SEPTA’s March 17 announcement of the “pause” in the KOP Rail project, Richards was quoted as saying, “This process further highlights the critical need for new transit funding at the state and local levels. In order to pursue any service extensions in the future, SEPTA needs more support.” It is difficult to argue with that view, as transit providers everywhere face potentially severe financial difficulties during the next few years.
There are two major issues facing SEPTA today, and the recent development has highlighted them. One concerns where future expansion should be built. There are two projects that have been proposed: the Roosevelt Boulevard subway, which its supporters believe would generate strong ridership and improve the city, and running trains to Reading, which would bring trains to an underserved area. While Reading service is part of Amtrak’s ConnectsUS plan for 2035, the line functioned as a “regional rail” line until 1981 and could do so again. With costs rising rapidly, capital funding is now scarce, so transit agencies must be careful about what they propose and how they spend the money they get.
The other concern is the system itself, especially as it operates within the City of Philadelphia. Advocates have been complaining about missed runs, lack of cleanliness, misbehavior like smoking and drinking on trains, fare evasion, and other “quality of life” offenses that dissuade potential riders. To the extent that these criticisms are valid, this might be a good opportunity for SEPTA to concentrate on improving service on the network it currently runs.
Is the impact of the FTA’s action demoting KOP Rail merely a result of local circumstances regarding Philadelphia and SEPTA, or is it a sign of financial difficulties that will soon spread to other transit providers around the nation? Time will tell, although it will probably tell soon.
Coupled with another, seemingly unrelated, event, the week leading up to the FTA’s decision does not appear to have been a good one for KOP. On March 10, local resident Jerry Samuels died at the age of 84. He was a songwriter and recording engineer, whose sole chart-topper was released in 1966. It was a strange piece of electronic audio wizardry titled They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa! The protagonist in the “song” had lost his sanity when his dog ran away, and the “B-side” was the “A-side” played backwards and with a mirror-image of the label from the “A-side” in the usual place.
Is there some sort of connection between those events? You decide.
David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also Chair of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.