Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Dialogue on the City Branch

(Author's note: This was originally intended to be an apology for City Branch rail transit on Hidden City. Its length, as well as the excessively technical discussion the dialogue form led to, led to its replacement.)

Controversy embroils the City Branch, my friend. An advocacy group has proposed converting it into a sunken park, which has met with considerable public skepticism and resistance.
Why the resistance? It's because, unlike the Reading Viaduct, the City Branch is still a viable transportation asset. Viable transportation assets which get converted into parks, tend not to get converted back again.

How do you mean, it's a "viable transportation asset"?

Think about the area between Vine St. and Spring Garden St., west of 8th St. Crystallize it in your mind. Think about the giant elevated blob east of Broad, an omnipresent blight in Callowhill. That's the Reading Viaduct. It was built as part of the 9th St. Branch, the Reading Terminal's station lead. A little over a mile remains, from Vine north to where the Regional Rail tunnel cutoff rejoins this branch, just north of Spring Garden St.

This structure has a kind of "Y" or "V" shape, with two branches diverging where it crosses Callowhill (between 11th and 12th). The right-hand leg runs northward--that's the 9th St. Branch proper. The other leg curves west until it parallels Noble St., which it meets between 12th and 13th. Both Noble St. and the line cross over 13th, but Noble proceeds to elevate to the level of Broad St., which is an overpass over the line.

It is here the cut proper begins.

From Broad west to 22nd, the line extends as a sunken industrial lead along the former course of Noble St.; at 22nd it curves north and enters the Fairmount Tunnel, where it interchanged with what is today CSX's Philadelphia Subdivision--but was originally the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O). Less than a mile further north, the B&O ended at a wye called Fairmount Junction, where it interchanged with two other railroads, the Reading (RDG) and Pennsylvania (PRR)*. This wye still exists, just west of Brewerytown.
Back in the days when the area between Vine and Spring Garden hummed with industry and activity, the City Branch was the freight terminal lead. The Terminal Commerce Building, that giant beige-bricked behemoth across the street from the Inquirer Building, was the Reading's primary freight terminal as much as the Terminal was its passenger terminal. Between four and six tracks wide and busy 24/7, the City and the railroad collaborated to separate the traffic from the streets late in the 19th century. A section was roofed over to produce the Fairmount Tunnel and Pennsylvania Ave. above; the remaining dry cut is the City Branch.

OK, history is cool and I get you're a nerd, but wouldn't this mean that the line isn't a "viable transportation asset" anymore? There are, after all, hardly any industries left!

Well, yes, there aren't any industries left along this line. That's why it's dormant. There are a lot of other industrial spurs in this city whose industry either dried up or switched to trucks--the North Penn Branch down American St., the Oxford Rd. Branch into the Near Northeast, the old Fairhill and  Frankford Branches, the 54th St. Branch in deep Southwest Philly, and others--they all lie abandoned or dormant, their customer base (usually one or two major ones, but occasionally a plethora of minor ones) gone. They are relics of a time when factories and mills were large multistory loft structures served by rail--nowadays those factories are single-story suburban groundscrapers served by truck.
What has happened to those old loft industrial structures? They have been demolished for redevelopment, or rehabilitated--frequently into apartments and condominiums. What was once a place to work is now a place to live. People today live alongside the City Branch Cut, where sixty years ago they worked. And servicing communities is the basis of strong ridership.

So it sounds like you're not talking about like a railroad-y kind of rail?

Indeed I am not. I'm talking about urban rail. Light rail or heavy rail.

As opposed to...?

A park. A proposal has been making the rounds to convert both the Reading Viaduct--the elevated structure, remember--and the City Branch Cut--the sunken one--into a park. Remember what I said before? It's okay to turn the Reading Viaduct into a park, or, more accurately, it will be in a few years, as Callowhill starts to really fill in. It would be a beautiful attraction and a jewel of the city.

But the City Branch Cut, it's not. Sunken parks don't work. We've tried them before. Remember what happened to Dilworth Plaza?

It filled up with homeless, didn't it? People avoided it, didn't they? It was pretty, but it sure wasn't safe.

Exactly. And we're going about tearing it apart and rebuilding it to get rid of that sunken plaza, turning it into a proper waiting room for the subway, the El, and the trolleys. Elevated park areas may work, especially if well looked after, but sunken ones, as a rule, fail. And that's what a lot of people are worried about.
But what I heard about the sunken park, a bikeway would be routed through it.

That's the proposal. But it would duplicate a bikeway about to be installed on Spring Garden St. That bikeway would be easy to find and to navigate to, and consequently more heavily used than a sunken one well away from major streets.

So I take it you're not enamored with this park idea.


Talk to me a little more about urban rail, then.

Well, poor transit access to the Art Museum area has been a recognized weak link in our city's transportation network for a while now. I'm not talking about the Museum proper, remember--I'm talking about the neighborhoods around it. Phlash serves the Museum proper, but it doesn't serve the neighborhoods--so whenever you hear the comment that Phlash serves the needs at hand please realize it's fallacious.

There are several buses that serve the Art Museum area: the 7, 32, 33, 38, 43, and 48 right off the top of my head. Without exception, these buses are packed to the gills as they pass through the area, during any time of the day. They head to or through Center City (except the 43, which links Parkside and Fishtown along Spring Garden), and they all extend to neighborhoods deeper into the city.

So the need is for a route which links the area with Center City, and which provides relief for the overburdened local buses.

Precisely! There are two ways to do this: light rail, or a metro.

What are the differences?

Light rail would lay tracks and trolley wire, and would use the trolley tracks along  11th-12th and Girard to access Center City and points west (the Zoo is popular, and there's a turnback loop at 40th Street), respectively. A metro would lay tracks and a third rail, and connect into the Ridge Avenue Spur and use its equipment.

Couldn't light rail use the trolley equipment we already have?

Unfortunately, no. That equipment was built in the 1980s and is in violation of ADA standards. We'd need to procure new equipment. It's because of this that light rail and a metro begin to approach cost parity--as well as the fact that the trolley tracks along 11th and 12th haven't been used in 20 years and would need to be rebuilt.

There aren't any public roads with a railroad crossing along this line. CSX, the active freight railroad, has one near the corner of 30th and Pennsylvania, I think, but it's for a private access road. This is what industry professionals would call a grade-separated right-of-way, and most of the expense of a metro comes in creating this kind of right-of-way, usually as tunnels under streets. That cost, here, was borne long ago. We just have to connect what already exists.

So it's like the Second Avenue Subway, but in the hundreds of millions rather than nearly ten billion.

Yes. But initial ridership would be lighter along this route. Because of this, we can use Broad-Ridge cars and shorter, wooden platforms and upgrade as we go.

I don't know, though. You seem to have this all thought out, but didn't SEPTA want to do something with this a decade ago and decide not to?

Well, yes. How much do you know about that study?

I know that it studied a light rail line from Broad St. using the City Branch to Girard, where it connected to the trolley tracks. I can't remember whether it used Girard to Lancaster or a new routing along Parkside, but it would have connected to the Regional Rails at 52nd St. Didn't it get axed when the Schuylkill Valley Metro got axed?

That's about what I remember too. As I recall, there were three major issues with the study: a shoehorned connection to the Schuylkill Valley Metro (so that it could be included along with the whole package), lack of a proper Center City gateway despite two to choose from, and a broken ridership projection.

Can you explain?

OK. Part of the Schuylkill Valley Metro--SVM for short--proposal was a reuse of the Cynwyd Line across the Pencoyd Viaduct into Manayunk; this line diverges from the Paoli/Thorndale Line at 52nd St., which was the reason for termination there--rather than some more intuitive destination, such as St. Joe's. The line's natural terminus, however, is the turnback loop at 40th and Girard, if one doesn't want to extend up Parkside. That's my first criticism. The second one is that the line was expected to terminate at Broad St. with a long connection to the subway, severing any Center City connection. The study thought about connecting the line with the Ridge Spur, but decided not to in favor of the shoehorned-in SVM connection; it also pointed out that the 11th-12th Sts. lines would need to be rebuilt after a decade of disuse.

The third problem is that the ridership projection of the era was broken. Subsequent studies have shown that urban rail routes have exceeded expectations 200% while suburban ones underperformed 50%. So the average urban line had double expected ridership and the average suburban one half it. It was later demonstrated that that particular model had an implicit suburban bias, remedied with a relatively easy mathematical "fix". I don't know if that fix has been incorporated into the projection model, though.

So, as an urban rail system, the City Branch should have double the ridership projected in 2002?

Likely enough I would bet on it. Natural population increase since would also boost the numbers some more.

Like what kind of increase?

Well, let's look at the last Census**--those numbers are still valid. Notice that the tracts around the City Branch have grown considerably: Callowhill doubled in population, and Franklin Town grew a good 20%. Notice that the tracts around the route all have between 2,000 and 5,000 people--those north of Spring Garden, stably so. Tally up the numbers and you'll notice that the population adjacent to the route north of Vine is about 25,000, concentrated along a route two linear miles long, and inhabiting an environment that disfavors driving. In addition to this, you have the Community College of Philadelphia, which can be exploited as a major ridership source, with its total enrollment approaching 40,000.

But the CCP has a bunch of campuses. That's just Main Campus.

True. I don't have a campus-by-campus breakdown, but it's fairly safe to say that about half the students go there. Between the student population and the neighborhood population(s), I'd say we'd have a catchment area of about 45,000. We can invoke privilege of destination for the Art Museum, Logan Circle, the Rodin Museum, Barnes, and Lemon Hill, and, for light rail, the Zoo, and assay that the combination of those increase capturable ridership by 5,000, to get a nice round 50,000. It is, however, important to note that while these places can augment ridership, they can't create it--that's the downfall of the Phlash.

What are a "catchment area" and "capturable ridership"?

Both are technical terms for how many people would have opportunity to regularly use the service. The "catchment area" refers to the population living and working close to the line; "capturable ridership" refers to people that can use the line if there's an incentive to, such as convenient access to a destination. Destinations are great for lots of things, but they aren't the main ridership draws. Realized ridership--how many people actually do--is usually a percentage of this amount. Transit planners working on new lines usually attempt to broaden their catchment areas as much as possible, through use of devices such as transit-oriented development, and capturable ridership with park-and-rides, because the more people can use a service and find it convenient, the more they do. Realized ridership, however, can vary--on the high end, about 20%, on the low end, about 5%, of the catchment area. Most traditional models model for about 10%.

Those numbers seem strangely familiar...

Yep, and wouldn't you know it, the less somebody drives, the more likely they are to use transit!

Hm, I see your point. But all this technical stuff is really starting to bore me. Let's get back to the controversy you were talking about. You said you had safety concerns about the park. Is there anything else you're concerned about?

Yes, actually. I think a park will cost more than transit.

Can you elaborate?

Of course. As it turns out, building parks on old railroads is trickier than it first appears. There are lots of parks around that incorporate parts of old railroads, yes, but they get away with it by maintaining relatively simple landscaping without needing to destroy the roadbed--a sort of compacted dirt-and-gravel subsurface all roads share.

But the kind of park proposed for the City Branch Cut would lie entirely over the roadbed. That means, if you want anything more fancy than a grass lawn or a woodlot, like lights or grove trees, you're going to have to dig it up. In addition to this, the line was an industrial line, which means there are probably carcinogens buried in the roadbed. To make it safe, you'll not only have to dig it up but clean it out.

This has been an ongoing problem with the Reading Viaduct, in fact. Known PCP pollution--railroads of the time used it in their ties--makes renovation of the Viaduct surprisingly costly, as the existing roadbed has to be dug up and clean soil put in. New York's High Line had to deal with this problem, too, and part of what made it possible was the fundraising acumen of the Friends of the High Line. Even so, even with all the pollution, demolition of the Viaduct is even more expensive, because of the solidly-built trestles and city wall-strong embankments. By contrast, reactivating the City Branch Cut for rail use would bypass the PCP problem partly by grandfathering it in--the same way it's dealt with throughout the Regional Rail system and along active railroads nationwide--and by the platforms acting as caps, or being elevated away from it.
The cost of removing the carcinogens puts any park conversion of the City Branch Cut in the $350,000+ range. Ouch. And that's before actually building a park. A reasonable expectation of rail restart, by contrast, is $200,000, ranged down with strong value engineering and up with government contract bloat.

But don't the park proponents already have money?

What they have is a preliminary planning grant. In essence, they're getting paid to produce some fancy renderings and draw up a budget. What they don't have is money to actually clean up the City Branch (or the Viaduct, for that matter)--this money is hard to find. The Friends of the High Line had to raise it privately, through funders and massive donation drives. In other words, they had to make the park a shared community vision, and then spend a decade gathering the money to make it real. They were able to do that for a variety of reasons--the High Line is on the park-starved West Side, and the right-of-way had limited potential connections with the existing subway network. And remember, even after the community shared their vision, it took many years of blood, sweat, and tears to make it real.

There is no such consensus here. The Reading Viaduct is the closest to such a consensus, and it is plagued by politicking between park-starved Callowhill loft-dwellers and a Chinatown looking for cheap land. Even though all parties agree that a linear park along (at least a part of) the Viaduct is a good idea, they differ--strongly--on how to go about it.

If anything, the City Branch Cut is even further from a consensus. Pressing safety and environmental
concerns, relatively abundant parkland west of the Community College, a hunger for increased rail access, duplication with the Spring Garden Greenway project, and ongoing funding concerns all work against any park proposal.

So they don't really have money, is what you're saying.


Then do YOU have money?

Unfortunately, no. Rail advocacy for the City Branch has existed consistently for several years, but has been much more nebulous, mostly consisting of conversational agreements. ViaductGREENE has only existed for about a year, and mostly in conversation with other Reading Viaduct proponents. Rail advocates, even those in on the Viaduct conversation***, thought that their City Branch Cut proposal was more silly than serious, a way of differentiating themselves from other Viaduct advocacy groups. It's only in the past few weeks that the City Branch Cut greenway has been advanced as a serious proposal, and moving far faster than they expected.

In other words, rail advocates have to organize themselves, and fast.

Join the conversation on Philadelphia Speaks here. If you want to make your voice heard, we are looking for help, and would value any sort of skill you bring to the table. Let's get enough voices together, and we can start working on a serious proposal of our own.
* Yes, all three of these railroads make an appearance on the Monopoly board.
** When you click on this link, you'll get a map showing all the Census changes in the country. To find more specific information, zoom in or search for "Philadelphia" or, even better, a zip code around Center City, like 19130.
*** I.e. me.

1 comment:

  1. Any suggestions on how to get involved? I'd love to help somehow.