SEPTA stays trackless in South Philly

Without $50 million to back the resurgence of trolleys locally, SEPTA vows to keep talks open with residents about their potential return to the neighborhood.

By Amanda L. Snyder
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Jul. 15, 2010

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Trolley wires are still intact along Snyder Avenue’s Route 79, as well as on Tasker and Morris streets where Route 29 travels. However, SEPTA has no immediate plans to substitute the trolleys for the buses.

Photo by Greg Bezanis

Seven years ago South Philly had two trackless trolley routes picking up and dropping off riders between Grays Ferry and Pennsport, but in 2003 they were switched to buses due to the need for new trolleys and several construction projects along the routes. The buses have remained, but residents haven’t backed off in requesting the trolleys’ return.

SEPTA had promised to restore the trolleys to Route 29, which travels east on Morris Street and west on Tasker Street between 33rd Street and Pier 70, and Route 79, which travels both east and west on Snyder Avenue from 29th Street to Columbus Boulevard, according to Susan Patrone, a former president of Passyunk Square Civic Association, who has led the fight, but after four years of meeting with the transit agency, it has yet to happen.

“They keep coming up with lame excuses,” Patrone, of 13th and Tasker streets, said noting examples such as legislation, operation and financial issues. “It would cost them a little more money, but the trackless trolleys have a much larger lifespan than even the hybrid diesel buses.”

To get the trolleys back on track in South Philly is more than just maintenance on the existing wires, SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said. It carries a price tag of more than $50 million, which SEPTA does not have with a 25 percent cut to its capital budget due to less state funding this year that has already halted planned renovations to the City Hall station and upgrading its payment system.

“We would need an additional 23 trackless trolleys to make the 29 and 79 exclusive for trackless trolleys,” he said. “That alone would cost over $20 million. We would essentially have to build a new — the electric substation is there. We would essentially have to build a new one.”

Not included in the cost is the extended service to Pier 70 for Route 29, which occurred after the switch to buses. 

“If the 29 went back [to a trolley], we wouldn’t be able to run a trackless trolley into that shopping center. At a minimum, it would require a whole new set of lines and infrastructure that would take us up to a higher price tag,” Busch said, noting addition difficulties such as crossing wires over private property.

Trolley service was reinstated in ’08 for three routes — 59, 66 and 75 in Northeast Philadelphia, after being suspended in ’03.

“Originally, the specifics for the contract did include all five lines and then somewhere down the line the two in South Philly were quietly dropped,” Anthony Santaniello, co-founder of the Lower Moyamensing  Civic Association,  said.

But the wait continues in order to improve the neighborhood’s quality of life, Patrone said.

“When I say, ‘quality of life,’ [it’s not,] ‘oh, we’re here because we don’t like buses,’” she said. “It’s called the environmental impact is really the basis for this and the quality of life ripples out from that.”

“There’s a more comfortable ride for passengers and there’s less noise for all the people that live along the routes,” Santaniello added on the trolleys. “It’s a lighter vehicle, so there’s less wear and tear on road and less rumbling of houses.”

About two years ago, SEPTA purchased 38 trackless trolleys for the Northeast routes after a project yielded the funds to do so, Busch said.

“As with a lot of things, it’s a funding issue and a money issue,” he said. “In the Northeast, the infrastructure that is needed to run the trackless trolleys from everything — from the power supply, the substations that power them, the electric power to the overhead lines — that was either new lines or facilities built as an overhaul to the Frankford Transportation Center.”

The trolleys were paid for with extra funding from the $43 million project for which $35 million was provided by the federal government.

“If we didn’t restore the trackless trolleys, we may have had to have pay back the federal government,” Busch said.

Locally, aside from Passyunk Square, East Passyunk Crossing Civic, Lower Moyamensing Civic, Newbold Neighbors Civic, Newbold South Civic, South Broad Street Neighbors and West Passyunk Point Neighborhood associations along with Point Breeze Community Development Corp. have joined Patrone in her mission. Together they form the Central South Philadelphia Civic Association Alliance.

She has even garnered support from many local politicians including state Sen. Larry Farnese, whose Chief of Staff Tony Mannino has taken an interest in the issue.

“I think we’d like to see a very detailed analysis on how we might be able to make this happen before we take the step of, ‘no, we can’t do it,’” he said.

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Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. Transit Jeff said... on Jul 15, 2010 at 04:31PM

“SEPTA continues to resist the restoration of trackless trolleys on two South Philadelphia lines. And many of the reasons stated are pure nonsense. Especially ridiculous are the lack of funding issues, the stated need to build an electrical substation and the totally incorrect assertion that "off-wire" range with the EPU is limited to only one mile. The EPU "off-wire" range is much greater and it has been proven in actual use every day in Northeast Philly.

The simple fact of the matter is that public preference be damned, SEPTA management dislikes trackless trolleys and only runs the ones in Northeast Philly because they were forced to by the Federal Government. In that case, had they not re-instated trackless trolleys, huge sums of Federal money would have had to be paid back.

One of the things that SEPTA conveniently neglects to say is that most of the money needed to restore trackless trolley service to South Philly would come from Federal, State and City sources. And it is Capital funding, not operating money. Only a small fraction would actually come from SEPTA's own Capital budget. SEPTA also fails to mention that the Obama administration has a strong desire to limit the use of oil and strongly supports "GREEN" alternatives. The bottom line is that SEPTA management simply likes buses and are not interested in running anything else.”

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2. transit buff said... on Aug 3, 2010 at 12:37PM

“Transit Jeff knows is on track”

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3. Fred M Pohl said... on Mar 11, 2011 at 12:34PM

“SEPTA NEedd to approriate fund for Trackless trolleys in South Philly they(SEPTA) has been half stepping too long with it Have hey taken a look at fuel prices lately?”

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4. John in SFO said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 06:19AM

“Let me see... Hybrid buses are essentially diesel-electric; a diesel engine turns a generator to supply power to an electric traction motor. Add to that a battery which supplies extra power for acceleration and acts as the energy sink for the dynamic brake, and you have an ELECTRIC bus that's powered by a diesel generator. So, with the exception of the petrol-burning engine, the bus is already electric, what's to stop one from mounting trolley booms on the roof and installing the motor controller - if it doesn't already have one? Then the bus could operate as a trackless trolley whenever it runs on the 29 or 79. A bus that can run as an electric trolley bus, or completely independent of overhead wires is called an all-service vehicle or dual-mode bus. PSNJ had them in the middle of the last century, and Seattle operated them until 2005, when trolley cars began running in the downtown Seattle subway. Keep hammering SEPTA, and forbid them to remove the 29 & 79's overhead wires.”

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5. John in SFO said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 07:03AM

“Having said what I just did, one should see 'Seattle Bus Tunnel' on Youtube to see Metro Transit's dual-mode (ASV) buses in action; it is interesting to see them change from diesel to electric mode for the subway, and then back. The ASV's are now straight trackless trolleys - they were displaced in the subway by trolley cars. It is interesting to note that Metro bought Gillig buses without powertrains; Metro took the traction motors and other components from their old AM General trackless trolleys, refurbished them and put them into the Gilligs, all while saving $20,000,000.00 in the process. Since SEPTA is doing its best to displease Philadelphians, the City of Philadelphia should consider establishing a Philadelphia Municipal Railway to take over all rail and trackless operations in the city. Otherwise, SEPTA will do to the 29 and 79 what they did to the north end of the 56 and the south end of the 23. Lastly, has anyone noticed that the cost of petrol has skyrocketed again?”

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6. John in SFO said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 07:17AM

“Seattle is not the only place to employ ASV's; see 'Essen duobus switching between electric and diesel modes.' The sophistication is quite interesting, and the concept would doubtless melt the synapses in SEPTA's currently brain-damaged management and planning & procurement pogues.”

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7. Fred M Pohl said... on Feb 24, 2013 at 12:06PM

“SEPTA really needs to get thier act togeher These is always a money issue with them This agency always comes up with new and amazing ways to screw up even when It was PTC being run by Nationla City Lines back in the day Thier way to get stuff done is too much like right I would love to see Trolley Coaches running along Snyder Ave & Tasker & Morris streets The Older ACF Brills were a Icon along Snyder ave back in the day and wer nice looking coaches”

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8. Fred M Pohl said... on Feb 24, 2013 at 12:16PM

“Why Cant SEPTA test one of the All Service Hybrid coaches in South Philly and see what the response will be and Seattle Boston Dayton Ohio Vancouver B.C.and San Fran have them still and other cities need to follow suit and resurge them Its also saves money on fule with overhead wires Dual Pupose coaches were used by Public Service Of Newark New Jersy Till the 1950s'Its a new tenique that has been revived and was dead in the water for years”


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