Friday, June 1, 2012

Responding to Paul van Meter

Last week, Hidden City posted a short news item that Paul van Meter's ViaductGREENE is getting funding for a preliminary study for greenspace conversion of the City Branch--the sunken former freight line linking the Reading Viaduct with CSX's Philadelphia Subdivision.
Comments got heated. This is a controversial topic, not least because of a broad consensus that (a) Philadelphia needs more transportation options and (b) sunken parks are unsafe. That's why we're redoing Dilworth Plaza, isn't it? In due course, Paul van Meter, leading proponent of the ViaductGREENE idea--the website is his--chimed in. I rebutted, and Mr. van Meter replied back. His points, unfortunately, are so flawed that he needs a point-by-point rebuttal.
Mr. van Meter first said:
Perfectly viable for light (or heavy)-rail when you convince CSX to relinquish the Philadelphia Subdivision? You call it “obsolescent,” CSX, who owns it, does not.
Reply:  The Philadelphia Subdivision has been de-emphasized as a main. CSX now treats the High Line as its main, as it has double-stack clearance. The Fairmount Tunnel does not. Thus, this section of the Philadelphia Subdivision has become more of an extended yard lead/interchange track. The ROW is ~70 ft. wide; CSX actively uses ~25 ft.
Granted, getting CSX to part with its property has proven problematic elsewhere, but given the facts that (a) the vast majority of the original ROW was given over to the City Branch's industrial leads--which obviously aren't coming back again--(b) that the line will NEVER have double-stack clearance--due to the Pennsylvania Ave. roof and the water table right underneath the floor--and an alternate route exists right nearby, and (c) the line's environs are enveloped by general urban development, which eliminates any potential freight-rail-based development, the space needed for any sort of mass transit is utterly obsolescent, at least from CSX's point of view. The Fairmount Tunnel can only be single-tracked, and the lead to it past the Schuylkill Banks double-tracked--there is not enough room to extend the yard proper past South St. and so the Pennsylvania Subdivision, north of there, must remain a yard lead.
This is the nature of CSX operations in the area, and this is why I think acquisition (or leasing) of part of the ROW for restored passenger service is worthwhile.
He followed with:
Should this happen before or after the $750M+ Broad Street Subway extension to the Navy Yard is completed?
And tell us more about the tunnel connecting the Ridge Avenue Spur (or PATCO) to the City Branch Cut and how “very very little” it would cost. Tell us more about “a new Callowhill station between 11th and 12th Sts. and a short stretch of 4% grade.”
Reply: (1) Before. This is that a rail project (of any sort) is small, but with big impact. It is the polar opposite to the bloated Schuylkill Valley Metro white elephant of a decade ago, which bundled just about everything on SEPTA's wish list (including a variant of this idea) into a single project, so unwieldy it collapsed in on itself to the point where even normally SEPTA-cheerleading Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers lambasted it, to say nothing of the Federal Transit Administration! Unfortunately, SEPTA management has been unable to promote an ambitious proposal since, and even its relatively unambitious proposals have (as the Pennsylvania Transit Expansion Coalition notes) been excessively larded--and that is why such small projects are needed, to show that even modest capital expenditures can have impressive returns, and help pave the way for realizing much more ambitious proposals, such as the Navy Yard extension.
(2) Your critique is against my light metro idea; suffice it to say that the merits of that idea would be more fully analyzed in a proper Alternatives Analysis (including how, if a light metro is pursued, 13th St. would be addressed. There are other options than the duckunder.)
About cost: this is a budgetary vision with draconian value engineering, enough to force the budget for any transportation project down to Small Starts qualification. Indeed, this was the point; a fairer budget would likely be double, and the capital budget can be multiplied some 500% before we begin to see diminishing returns on investment. The point I am making is, again, this would be a small project with big impact.
By the way, the El east of 30th St. has a 4% grade. It cannot be steeper because otherwise the trains couldn't make it up; it cannot be any less steep because otherwise it wouldn't be able to clear under what was, at the time it was built, a navigable waterway. Lightweight mass transit equipment is generally built to take such gradients for short periods. And, again, the 12th-13th stop would be part of a light metro system, centrally located in Callowhill, along an easy stretch of Noble to work, and offering incredible redevelopment opportunity.
Next, he says:
SEPTA and the City’s “52nd Street/Center City (City Branch) Corridor Alternatives Analysis” throughly identified and evaluated alternative modes and alignments to improve transit service and access in this corridor; the analysis resulted in SEPTA’s conclusion that none of the alternatives would be federally competitive for funding due to high costs and low projected ridership. It’s not about SEPTA, it’s wants or desires.
Tell us about who’s going to pay for your “viable ROW.”
Reply: This is, again, firstly conflation, and secondly, tunnel vision. SEPTA never built the Market St. El or Regional Rail. Private companies did. SEPTA never built the Broad Street Line or Frankford El. The City did. SEPTA's original mandate was operation of the region's existing rail assets. It has both succeeded and failed in upholding this mandate.
The Alternatives Analysis Mr. van Meter is referring to was written a decade ago. It was written in a local climate of tying everything to the Schuylkill Valley Metro proposal, and in a Federal climate that emphasized cost über alles. This Alternatives Analysis was (again) bloated, due to the forced extension to 52nd St., coupled with an ignoring of potential Center City gateways, built on a ridership model that subsequent studies have shown to be fatally flawed*, and part of a package that, as mentioned, was lambasted by the DVARP for its generally overengineered design and technical impossibilities. The FTA, unsurprisingly, gave the package a "Not Recommended" rating, but even so, we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Montgomery County is still pursuing a (PDF warning) stripped-down plan for commuter rail to Reading, because that element is feasible. We, too, need to recognize that rail on the City Branch is still a good idea, still feasible, and has two potential Center City gateways to work with.
Finally, we return to cost. I must reiterate, this is the point of my draconian budget, to sink the cost low enough ($100 million) to qualify for Small Starts. Follow the lead of past transit investment--bring the City, the state, and private players on board. Consider unusual financing mechanisms, particularly those that can leverage transit-oriented development along the route. Bring Blatstein on board. It's not as easy as a greenway, sure, but where there's a will there's a way.
Denver, Salt Lake, LA, “in Portland or Seattle-in Dallas,even” have all developed pedestrian and bicycle-friendly corridors in addition to reactivating dormant rail rights-of-way.
Sure--but not in corridors where rail is the optimal answer! Not a duplicate bike path two blocks from the planned Spring Garden Street greenway! You are presenting this as an either-or problem; it's both-and. The solution that you're ignoring is that it's entirely possible to do both here as well: Spring Garden planning's well under way, and the City Branch Cut offers a compelling case for a rail branch reactivation.
From a planning standpoint, VIADUCTgreene’s post-industrial corridor has tremendous potential to become an attraction in and of itself. An attraction that adds layers to Philadelphia’s place in founding the country, to its building of the country.
Tunnel-vision for sure.
That's what they said about Dilworth Plaza when they first built it. It failed. Soaring rhetoric is not enough. What was the definition of insanity again?
* Among projects realized under the ca. 2002 FTA ridership model, shorter, more urban projects tended to realize 200% of projected ridership, and longer, more suburban ones 50%. Or: the average urban project had double the projected ridership, while the average suburban one had half.

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