(Scenario 2 "Metro Frequency" | Image: SEPTA)
Part two of our four-part series about the prospects for "Growth Machine" coalition politics under presumptive Mayor Cherelle Parker looks at one early coalition priority--the 76ers arena--along with some of the transportation infrastructure priorities that could unite the different constituencies with a shared interest in more economic growth, jobs, and tax revenue. Part one of this series describes what is meant by the term "growth machine" and some of the reasons why this current of city politics could have some more influence following the 2023 primary election.
(Source: 76 Place)
One piece of widely-believed conventional wisdom coming out of the primary is that the proposed Sixers arena stands a better chance of moving forward with Cherelle Parker as the likely next Mayor. That’s because of Parker’s own comments on the proposal, which left the door wide open to supporting it upon further study, and also because of the broad overlap with the coalition that supported Parker’s candidacy.
A powerful coalition of the Sixers organization, building trades unions, Black Clergy leaders, and likely some more unions soon, is supporting the project, and the actual operational hurdles to gaining city approval—namely, striking Filbert St from the general plan—are few. An arena is one of the allowed uses in the CMX-5 zone covering the Fashion District, so there will be a strong legal presumption about the owners’ ability to use their property in line with their existing basket of property rights.
Sitting right on top of one of the highest-capacity transit hubs in the United States, the project would be a shot in the arm for transit ridership on SEPTA, and for foot traffic in Center City on game nights, especially if the Sixers development team prioritizes active ground-floor uses on Market Street as they’ve said in various public statements. The team has also announced plans to package transit fares into tickets through the new SEPTA Key Advantage system, creating a new fare revenue stream for SEPTA. This all would help strengthen the policy rationale for some of the other transportation investments discussed below if putting more big attractions downtown convinces policymakers that more and better transit service is needed.
With a $50 million potential community benefits agreement in the works for Chinatown institutions and businesses, it should be possible for enough of the stakeholder groups involved to reach an agreement that makes this a win-win for nearby businesses and residents, the transit system, the Sixers, and the various unions supporting the plan.
Some of the transit capital projects that are top priority for SEPTA and the Kenney administration are substantially in motion already, like Bus Revolution and the trolley modernization program. The implementation of these projects will mostly take place during presumptive Mayor Parker’s time in office, and there will be lots of important details to get right where the next crop of Streets and transportation leaders’ view of things will matter a great deal.
As far as new transit initiatives that the Parker coalition might want to champion, some of the better candidates could include Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility improvements (short-term), SEPTA’s Reimagining Regional Rail initiative (medium-term), and the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway (long-term.)
ADA accessibility projects were some of the bigger beneficiaries of SEPTA’s decision to pause the KOP Rail project this spring, and this will have a lot of direct service benefits for people with mobility challenges, seniors, and families with young children who use SEPTA. Quality-of-life improvements were a big theme of Cherelle Parker’s pitch in the election, and changes like more elevators; better station accessibility; clean, safe, and smoke-free stations; and more and better bus shelters all fit the bill. Bus shelters are actually the city’s responsibility, not SEPTA’s, so that is something the new administration will have more scope to take action on.
The medium-to-long-term transit capital projects that could be most exciting from the Growth Machine coalition standpoint are SEPTA’s Reimagining Regional Rail initiative and the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway.
Reimagining Regional Rail
Reimagining Regional Rail is an ideal project for Growth Machine coalition organizations to focus on from an advocacy standpoint because it would have the greatest benefits for Cherelle Parker’s voting base in Northwest Philly neighborhoods, while also providing benefits for her campaign’s institutional supporters.
The Philadelphia region is better-positioned than anywhere else in the United States to have a true “S-Bahn” type of regional rail system with decently-frequent service. In the best-case scenario, more of the regional rail lines would run service as frequently as every 15-20 minutes, including on nights and weekends. This would obviously be a game-changer for people who live close to regional rail stops today, providing them with much faster and more convenient access to Center City and other destinations.
To make a finicky but important point about a confusing misuse of terminology, the term "regional rail" is much too generous for the standard of service that SEPTA is running on these rail lines. What the Philadelphia region really has is a form of "commuter rail" where train service runs hourly or worse, and the fares are more expensive than on the buses and trains. The RRR project is about converting parts of the system from a commuter rail level of service to a "regional rail" level of service that, while still less frequent than the MFL or BSL, would be a major upgrade compared to the status quo.
Much of the hardest and most expensive work to make all this possible was completed long ago, but city, state, and SEPTA leaders essentially quit on the vision before the much more frequent service benefits could be fully realized. The good news is that the current generation of staff at the city and SEPTA is intent on finishing the job, and now the Reiminaging Regional Rail initiative is on the agenda again.
Unlike a sexy new subway line, RRR involves a series of mostly boring capital improvements like installing high-level boarding platforms. Some of these projects are already in SEPTA's capital plan, but could move up in the priority chain depending on which route SEPTA chooses to go.
According to sources, SEPTA will soon announce their preferred plan for the RRR initiative, and they will likely propose some ambitious frequency improvements to lines serving many in-city stations. The “Scenario 2” proposal for “Metro Frequency” —15-minute headways in the core of the system— apparently received the most support in public engagement surveys by a wide margin. The proposal is expected to draw heavily from this with elements included from the other scenarios too. As an early move in support of this vision, SEPTA has included in-city regional rail stations in the fare for Transpass users in this year's budget, matching the fares for buses and subways for those traveling within Philadelphia.
Scenario 2 is by far the best option for the city of Philadelphia out of the available choices, and it would be very helpful for the presumptive new Mayor and some of the different stakeholders who supported her campaign to get behind that project in a big way.
Not only would the Scenario 2 version of Reimagining Regional Rail greatly improve daily transportation service options for residents of North, Northwest, and Northeast Philly, but it would also provide long-term benefits to the building industry both from the direct construction of the associated capital projects, and by effectively shrinking travel times between Center City, many "Middle Neighborhoods" and of course the suburbs, while expanding the map for dense mixed-use housing and commercial development projects.
Combined with other pro-housing policy changes discussed in Part 3 of this series, the Reimagining Regional Rail project could open up many more opportunities for transit-oriented development near regional rail stations in the Northwest and in the suburban collar counties, fueling decades’ worth of demand for new dense mixed-use building construction throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania.
The Center City Commuter Connection — the infrastructure built in the 1980s that connected Regional Rail to the city’s subway network by linking Suburban Station and Jefferson Station — will ultimately enable this service expansion. The Commuter Connection was itself a product of the Growth Machine coalition of that time and really showcases the kind of happy marriage that’s possible when you combine some of the high-efficiency, high-impact transportation and infrastructure proposals beloved by transit wonks with the political muscle of organized labor.
It’s unclear as of now whether there will be any resistance to this version of the plan from the suburban counties’ SEPTA Board appointees, but Philadelphia and its appointees should be prepared to escalate things if necessary to make sure it happens. The next Mayor will get to make two appointments to the SEPTA Board, and they have a unique veto power over the SEPTA budget that other counties’ representatives don’t have. As such, the Mayor has some leverage to drive an agenda there for some specific priorities.
Roosevelt Boulevard Subway
For all the same reasons that the Growth Machine coalition should rally behind RRR Scenario 2, the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway campaign also deserves a look from Mayor Parker and her coalition of supporters. Cherelle Parker made one of the stronger cases for the Boulevard Subway when asked about it during the campaign, so the good news is that it’s gotten on the radar.
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission directed PennDOT to study the subway scenario as part of the Route for Change project planning, so it’s not exactly shovel-ready. But it continues to make steady advances, with Philadelphia City Councilmember Mike Driscoll (District 6) introducing a resolution calling for hearings on the subway concept, featuring an impressively long list of co-sponsors.
It's important for everyone on the official side not to lose sight of the fact that the Reimagining Regional Rail reform agenda is the nearer-term initiative to focus on, which could actually get partway done within the next decade. SEPTA is also still officially unsupportive of the Boulevard Subway option in part due to the bleak transit funding projections in the medium-term. The idea is also still in its infancy as a potential infrastructure project despite first being proposed 100 years ago, while the RRR project partly involves reshuffling a lot of projects already in SEPTA's capital plan.
But the Boulevard Subway is still very much a project worthy of the various Growth Machine institutions’ attention long-term because, if done right, it has the potential to serve ten times as many daily riders as the King of Prussia Rail extension was projected to serve, at a similar cost. And similarly to the Reimagining Regional Rail project, it is an investment that would create decades’ worth of demand for mixed-use housing and commercial development near the new station areas.
The Washington, DC area’s growth-machine coalition of yore had a pretty sophisticated understanding of the connection between transit expansion investments and land development when they extended the Orange Line to Arlington. The insistence on a below-ground transit line rather than above-ground seems to have been an important decision in this regard, with lessons for the Boulevard Subway debate here. For a history of some of the policy decisions there and the thinking behind them, Emily Hamilton’s “How DC Densified” piece in Works in Progress is worth a read.
There may be other projects too that different interest groups may want to prioritize, but the key to achieving any of this will be passing state enabling legislation -- HB1307, introduced by Rep. Joe Hohenstein -- allowing six PA counties to raise a few different types of dedicated local revenue for transportation capital projects. Without more local revenue to match federal dollars, the Philadelphia region won’t be able to compete for the discretionary grant funding from US DOT that will make some of these projects possible.
One of the big lessons of the King of Prussia Rail project being paused (and likely abandoned) by SEPTA has to do with the unwillingness of Montgomery County officials to ever confront the local matching funds requirement, which was one of the bigger problems dooming that project.
Everyone who is interested in seeing Philadelphia go to bat for federal discretionary transportation funding needs to be very clear-eyed about the fact that a local revenue conversation cannot be avoided, but also that the economic benefits from the resulting federal investment can be net positive for Philly residents if our officials make wise decisions about which capital projects to prioritize.
Stay tuned for next week's newsletter about what could be on the growth machine coalition agenda for housing in 2024.