SEPTA KOP Extension Green Light a Favorable Signal?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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King of Prussia (known by locals as “KOP”) is not a town, but a sprawl dominated by a mall, northwest of Philadelphia. It started as the location of the King of Prussia Tavern late in the 18th Century, named after Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740 until 1784. He was highly regarded for modernizing the government of his country, promoting the arts, and especially for his skill as a military leader. His descendants established modern Germany nearly a century after his death. Today, KOP is the proposed destination for an extension of SEPTA’s Norristown High-Speed Line.

After nearly a half-century since it was first proposed, the project recently got a green indication from the FTA to enter into the project development phase, a significant step toward bringing it to fruition. As noted, its proposed destination was named to honor a then-recent historical figure whose legacy is still respected today. In its own way, SEPTA is honoring recent history by promoting a project in accordance with the transportation needs and customs of the recent past, a time that now feels like a bygone era. Will the project stand up as a significant mobility improvement for Philadelphia and its suburbs, or will it ultimately be remembered as an overpriced project which used up money that could have been spent elsewhere to deliver a greater benefit for the region’s riders and taxpayers?

That is the question. Is it reasonable to expect that the project will serve the future mobility needs of the region’s residents and employees, throughout the 2030s and beyond, in a more cost-effective manner than other projects that will not be built because the KOP project used up the money? Alternatively, will the opportunity cost of building the KOP project instead of others prove a sub-optimal investment? Even if the project made sense when it was proposed in the past, would it still make sense in the future, in light of the changes that are occurring due to the COVID-19 virus and other recent trends? 

The project itself would extend four miles west from the existing Norristown Line, not from downtown Norristown, but branching off at a wye three stops south of there at Hughes Park. It would comprise two new stations near the King of Prussia Mall and another two further west, in a sprawl of commercial buildings. It is advertised as going to Valley Forge, where George Washington’s army spent a miserable winter in 1777-78, but it would actually terminate almost a mile short of there. The cost of the project is now estimated at $2.1 billion, and it is expected the it will take about eight years to complete.

The famous “Brill Bullet” cars used on the Norristown High Speed Line.

The extension would branch off from a line that is unique in Philadelphia and perhaps in the nation. It is the historic Philadelphia & Western Railroad (P&W) line, which is 13.4 miles long and opened in 1907. While it bears some resemblance to streetcar and light rail lines, it is closer to a true interurban, electrically-powered, but the power is collected through a third rail, rather than an overhead wire.  

The project itself bears the hallmarks of many new transit proposals. While SEPTA is promoting it vigorously, a strong force behind it is McCormick Taylor, a large engineering and construction firm with 17 offices, ranging from as far west as Pittsburgh to as far south as Fort Myers, Florida. Despite its influence, its name is hardly mentioned on the website of the semi-official support organization. The sponsors of the project are the sort of local business leaders and elected officials who often promote projects of this sort on the ground that they will bring business to the area, but the names of any actual riders or advocates for those riders are conspicuously absent. Nonetheless, the Delaware Valley Association of Railroad Passengers (DVARP) supports the project. DVARP Treasurer Tony DeSantis expressed the hope that the KOP project will be completed, as well as his disappointment that it has been so long since the there were any expansions of rail service on SEPTA.

The last line added to the system was the Airport Line, which opened in 1985. During the 1980s, several lines were truncated and all diesel-operated lines were discontinued. Some electric lines were cut back, too. There was another major project during that time: the Center City Commuter Connection, a tunnel under Center City that created a loop which allowed trains to run inbound on lines of the historic Pennsylvania Railroad and outbound on lines of the historic Reading Railroad and vice versa. Scott Spencer, who worked on the project, considers it to be a major operational improvement and service enhancement, but not an expansion of the scope of the SEPTA rail network. Spencer does not share DVARP’s enthusiasm for the KOP project, and told me that some sort of “people mover” in the area would serve it more effectively and economically. 

SEPTA and McCormick Taylor sold the KOP project hard. As part of that effort, the KOP Coalition listed a number of claimed benefits: reducing roadway congestion, economic development in KOP and elsewhere along the line, more jobs, higher property values, and “create[ing] walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods in and around the proposed stations.” The area is auto-oriented (as depicted in the animated video produced to promote the project), so it’s unclear whether such “walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods” could develop there. The other claims are standard ones invoked by project developers. Maybe, over time, they will come to fruition. Or else, maybe time will pass the project by.

In 2016, Mark Dent wrote an article for news website Billy Penn headlined “Is the King of Prussia train, in the works for 50 years, picking up steam?” He began by saying: “The $1 billion cost of the KOP extension is about twice the amount estimated when the project was resurrected in 2013.” It has doubled again to $2.1 billion since that time. Dent noted that a 1968 SEPTA map included a line that represented the project. He also reported that SEPTA was making the same arguments in the past that are being propounded in support of the project today: “Proponents of the plan stress possible economic benefits into the billions of dollars: They’re counting potential new jobs, hours saved from sitting in traffic jam, and the potential for new development. According to a study released in December from SEPTA and the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, about 95 percent of King of Prussia’s 50,000 workers commute from elsewhere. Buses provide the only public transit available to and from Philadelphia, and they get stuck on the Schuylkill like everyone else. He also reported that the Airport Line was the only new line to enter service since 1968 and that the cost of the project was a major concern. He quoted Dan Cowhey, leader of an organization called No KOP rail as saying: “ It seems to me … that this project, like past projects, is poorly planned and shoehorned into an area that isn’t really designed to support rail.”

It may not be. There are currently six bus lines serving KOP from a number of places, including Center City Philadelphia and Norristown, the current end of the “high-speed line” as the locals call it, and 69th Street Station, at the other end of that line. Buses also serve West Chester and Gulph Mills (four stops inbound from Norristown and one station inbound form Hughes Park on the rail line), and some buses run express. We checked the schedules to KOP from Center City, 69th Street, Norristown and Gulph Mills, and all of them appeared to be time-competitive with the proposed rail extension. The proposed extension would also not provide a one-seat ride beyond 69th Street, so an additional subway or bus ride would be needed. Riders on the #124 bus now have a one-seat ride between Center City and KOP that takes one hour or less, a ride that few would be expected to give up for a two-seat ride that takes longer.

There is also an issue relating to retailing and the changes that have swept the industry over the past few years, and increasingly rapidly since the COVID-19 virus struck last year. The KOP mall itself would be served by two of the four proposed new stations, but it is unclear how many riders the line would deliver near the door. The light-rail line from Minneapolis drops riders at the Mall of America in Bloomington further away from the entrance than the location of many automobile-parking spaces. The same holds for New Jersey Transit’s buses that take riders to the still-incomplete “American Dream” mall in the New Jersey Meadowlands, which its detractors call the “American Nightmare.”   

The age of the mall may be winding down, as on-line retail giants like Amazon seem to increase their market share continually. Some existing malls are shutting down, while chains of stores that used to serve as the anchor tenants in the malls now face difficult times. Some are fighting for their lives, and some of them are losing. Some existing malls will survive, and KOP may be one of them, but the proposed line is not scheduled to be completed until the end of this decade. What will retailing be like in the 2030s? We don’t know, but we also can’t assume that the proposed KOP extension will not be susceptible to meeting the fate of many malls and losing its own anchor property: the KOP mall itself.

Part of the effort to promote the extension is an animated video simulation of the proposed route, from where it would branch off at Hughes Park to its outer end in KOP. To some extent, at least, the simulation appears to give some credence to opposition concerns. There is only low-density development along the proposed line, a condition that does not usually support a rail line, especially one that is expensive to build. The proposed line meets that qualification, since most of it would be elevated beyond that wye where it would branch off from the Norristown line. The Allendale Road station would include a pedestrian bridge to the mall, which is better access than other mall-oriented services usually provide, but there is no similar feature at the Mall Boulevard station. At First Avenue and Moore Road, the furthest station, there would be a 500-space parking facility, but that means the station could only remove 500 motorists (or maybe a few more, if two or more ride together) from nearby highways. Although the line is touted as an alternative to the crowded Schuylkill Expressway, that particular highway is not indicated in the video (while the Pennsylvania Turnpike is). The video concludes by mentioning the “potential” for transit-oriented development (TOD) at the end of the line, but that only means there is available land, not that people will want to buy homes there.

Then there is the issue of service on the existing Norristown Line. The proposed line to KOP would split off from it between Hughes Park and the Norristown Transportation Center, three stops away in downtown Norristown. Unless downtown Norristown loses half of its service, SEPTA’s only other alternative would be to double the service on the rest of the line between 69th Street and Hughes Park. That outcome seems unlikely, given the large increase in operating cost that such service would require. There has been a suggestion to run service from downtown Norristown to KOP, and the wye near Hughes Park could accommodate it. However, Norristown is not a wealthy town, and there is existing bus service between those points that takes thirteen minutes for the trip. It does not appear that it would make sense to kill an existing bus line serving different intermediate points than the proposed rail line would serve, unless that were part of a plan to force Norristown residents to use the rail line instead. All in all, the most likely service plan would split 69th Street departures between Norristown and KOP.

Politically, the project is moving forward, at least for now. Will there eventually be enough opposition over its high price or other shortcomings to defeat it someday? The money could be spent in plenty of other places, including restoration of rail service to places that lost it over time. DVARP’s web site lists Bethlehem, Newtown, Pottstown, Quakertown, Reading, and West Chester as places in Pennsylvania that should have their former rail services restored. DVARP also says “trolley service needs to expand in Philadelphia” (Mount Holly, Glassboro, and Woodbury in South Jersey are also on the list). The last trolley route to be discontinued was the #15 in January, 2020. It may come back, but we can’t be sure. 

So the big question remains: If the line is eventually built, will it become an innovative new line or merely an effort to pander to the moneyed interests pushing for it? In other words, will it be a boon to the community, or a waste of money that big shots want to spend, in other words, a KOP-out?

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 a member 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.

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