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.
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.
“It’s not big deal to me,” Joe Morrell said. “I like a little extra exercise anyway.” The resident of the 2400 block of South Franklin Street offered his indifferent stance April 21 while traveling southbound on Route 47, SEPTA’s second busiest bus line. His ride came on the fourth day of the Route 47 Service Enhancement Pilot, a six-month plan to diminish dilemmas for a service that conveys 134,000 passengers weekly.
In a deal to help to boost advertising revenue, SEPTA has renamed Pattison Station on the Broad Street Line “AT&T Station.” The name will take effect later this summer along with new signage and new maps system-wide all paid for as a part of a $5 million five-year deal paid by the wireless company that is the only cell phone company to provide coverage underground.