Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cemetery Heights Line

How does Yonah Freemark make his maps so sharp?
This is a no-brainer.
The Cynwyd Line is currently SEPTA's least-performing line, with 553 daily boardings, at about 184 spread over each of its three stops. This line is the black sheep of the system, being the only one serviced by a dinky, and the only one with neither off-peak nor weekend service. Politics, more than anything else, keeps the Cynwyd Line from being abandoned entirely.
This is a grand and epic waste of potential, though. The Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) is more a progression of bottlenecks than a proper Interstate, with Cemetery Heights coming in just before some of the worst jams (at City Line Avenue and the Belmont Curve). There is some space on the hill where the Pencoyd Viaduct crosses the Schuylkill Expressway for this: it is something of an engineering challenge, but it should be possible to put in a large parking garage, capable of holding about the same amount of cars as Cornwells Heights (1,600), there. This park-and-ride would be directly accessible from the Schuylkill Expressway.

Since the right-of-way is there and the catenary can easily be re-strung, the costs are primarily in laying down a mile of rail (mostly single-track), building a 240-foot-long platform, and the parking structure. Since the average above-ground parking structure costs $20,000 a space and there would be 1,600 parking spaces, this structure would cost $32 million. A million for the rail extension, five million for the platform and the slip ramp (a simple slip is all that's needed), and another ten million for budgetary padding brings the cost up to $53 million--quite large for a mile-long extension, but justified because (1) SEPTA lots are paid lots, and hence in principle profitable, and (2) the (lack of) length of this extension belies the ridership increase.

The extension would have two new stops: Belmont, a reactivation of an older stop; and Cemetery Heights, the new terminus. Belmont is projected to have 184 daily boardings--the average for the other three--but Cemetery Heights' projected daily boardings are on a par with SEPTA's largest park-and-ride, Cornwells Heights, currently at 1,104. This is a potential daily ridership increase of 1,288 to 1,841, which is 2.3 more people than currently use the line. In other words, this scheme would triple--at relatively nominal expense--the Cynwyd Line's ridership.

Per rider, the costs would break down to $41,150--high, but comparable to per-rider expenses elsewhere in the U.S. (which Alon Levy was talking about earlier today). It would have the additional benefit of incurring an addition maintenance and operating expense of essentially zero: SEPTA already has the equipment, the crew, and even the rail maintenance equipment already on its system. This expense would be one-time-only, payable by parking proceeds. The project can be completed in a single construction season--hardly enough time for delays or cost overruns. It can even in all likelihood be developed as a public-private partnership with, say, Zuritsky's Parkway Corporation: were he to pick up the garage's tab, the total per-rider cost would drop to just $8,570. And finally, it can convince a skeptical Philadelphia riding public that SEPTA is indeed serious about service expansion.

The other interesting thing about Cemetery Heights is that it lies at an important junction in Philadelphia's burgeoning bicycle network: the Pencoyd Viaduct, formerly used by the Pennsylvania Railroad to cross the Schuylkill, is being repurposed into a bikeway. It connects with the Schuylkill River Trail around Ivy Ridge and Shawmont, and it terminates into the Cynwyd Trail here. The Cynwyd Trail itself extends from Belmont Avenue in a hollow behind Westminster Cemetery to Cynwyd, and can continue to exist on the former second track of the Pennsy branch. Due to this quirk, there is a strong possibility that this station can be used as a bike-and-ride in addition to its park-and-ride capabilities. 200 spaces of bike parking at Cemetery Heights is, therefore, to be duly provided.


  1. First, $20,000 per space is kind of gold-plated. Hicksville paid $25,000 per space, but that was for a garage.

    Second, what such computations showcase is that a huge portion of the cost of suburban transit is parking, and therefore limiting parking and replacing it with good connecting transit is prudent. Calgary boasts that it limited park-and-rides and instead upzoned near stations as a way of reducing the construction costs of its light rail network ($2,700 per rider for the first three lines, no zero misplaced). A fringe benefit of this upzoning is that it generates reverse-peak traffic, which is much cheaper to provide than peak traffic.

    The issue is that in very congested areas, park-and-rides work as a way of extending the suburbs downtown. Concentrated parking lot stations with express service, such as Ronkonkoma and Metropark, can get relatively high ridership, and this can mislead planners into thinking this can work throughout the system.

  2. I agree...but, as I already mentioned, site contingencies DO REQUIRE a parking garage. There's not enough space there any other way. My proposal--a public-private partnership wherein a garage operator takes on the cost (and risk) of operating a garage while SEPTA only takes on the cost (and risk) of providing transit access, massively drops the total costs the riding public has to bear. Even if SEPTA were to pick up the tab for this, however, garage rates (charging rates comparable with Center City's with a time reduction to to the Schuylkill's near-constant state of gridlock) should eventually pay for the cost of this project.

    As for the second point, this is one of the few places where a park-and-ride is optimal. 1. The Cemetery Heights site is only accessible via road from the Schuylkill Expressway, and 2. traffic volume on the expressway, and constraints on further construction south of City Avenue (the Expressway weaves through Fairmount Park and by 30th Street Station at only 4 to 6 lanes, and its limited-access capacity cannot realistically be expanded) suggest a large latent market. The analogy here is with Cornwells Heights (a station accessible only by I-95 and Woodhaven Avenue--a highway), SEPTA's closest version to Ronkonkoma and Metropark--it is not an optimal site for any other kind of transportation development.

    I have other ideas--this is the shortest, makes the most intuitive sense, and is the easiest to build. All the ingredients are already there. Don't be fooled by the map: follow the Cynwyd Trail and see the site for yourself. I assure you that local site limitations render this particular site unfit for TOD upzoning.