"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, March 11, 2016

Norristown/Bridgeport, Pa. Are Getting “Access To Transportation.” That’s The Best Possible News

The primary reason for my optimism about Norristown, Pennsylvania is that it will get “access to transportation.”  I include rail transportation in this calculation, but not as a major benefactor, as much as I would like that to be.  I’ll discuss that later, but now I want to focus on the much more certain arrival of road “access.”  In my first post in this series, I pointed out that “access to transportation” only begins with owning a car.  Only a very few people can live along the lower Schuylkill River without one.  Once you have a car, the question is where you have to drive to for work, and how long it takes.  In the years since the Second World War, the possibilities of both have expanded enormously due to our nationwide thirst for limited-access highways.  After the war, Norristown absorbed a very hard lesson about the effects of a transportation revolution on established business practices, and is now belatedly trying to connect to the limited-access road network.

The project that hold so much promise for Norristown is known as “The Lafayette Street Extension.”  It has much promise for two interrelated reasons: it will give Norristown a true Turnpike exit at one end, and the other end goes exactly where it should to tap Norristown’s most valuable asset: its riverfront.  So far, extension is it what has been accomplished, from its previous eastern dead end out to Conshohocken State Road.  Old Lafayette Street in Norristown will be widened, but it’s the next extension that is the most important, because that will take the road to the Turnpike.  An entirely different project (different funding, different timing, etc.) will then construct a full Turnpike interchange to the new road.  This new connection will be the best news to happen to Norristown in quite some time, and could be the key to the town’s long-awaited revival.

Do I know for sure that this is going to happen?  No, I don’t.  If understanding what has happened produced a knowledge of what is going to happen, then historians would be both more influential and much better paid.  Norristown’s future is not nearly as simple—or as assured—as I have phrased it above.  But looking at Norristown’s past—and understanding  what happened (as opposed to remembering it)—demonstrates that a great error was made over sixty years ago, and that Norristown’s leaders have absorbed this hard-earned lesson.

This is Norristown’s second chance at a Turnpike Exit, and its attitude couldn’t be more different.  All of Norristown, from elected officials to businessmen to just plain citizens look forward to the connection.  They are not planning to repeat an old mistake.  Back in the early 1950s, when the Turnpike extension from King of Prussia to the Delaware River was being developed, the plan proposed an interchange pretty much right where the new one will be built, at the eastern edge of Borough (as it was then).  Norristown’s movers and shakers reacted with horror; virtually everyone was against it, and they lobbied hard to move the exit, even traveling to Harrisburg to make their case.  They simply did not understand (and, in truth, could not have, given their worldview) that limited-access highways would transform the interconnected worlds of transportation and marketing.  Norristown was a railroad town, and tightly woven into the rail transportation network.  They spurned the new road. 

Unfortunately (as it turned out) the Turnpike Commission complied; it abandoned the idea of an interchange at Norristown’s border and moved it about two miles west.  I’ve always privately speculated (without any supporting facts, mind you) that the Authority still named it the “Norristown Exit” out of spite, then enjoyed decades of people using the exit and not being able to find Norristown. 

Be that as it may, things have certainly changed.  Back then, they were afraid that a Turnpike interchange would ruin downtown.  Well, the interchange was moved and downtown was ruined anyway, so now Norristown is counting on an a real “Norristown Exit” to give it a much-needed shot in the arm.  Bridgeport shares in this, as the Turnpike and the location of its interchanges contributed a great deal to the decline of the Borough also.  A new connection—even if an indirect one, in the case of Bridgeport—could help reverse that trend.

Much has been said already, and much more will be said about what the project could mean.  I support it from that outsider’s point of view, at an abstract level supported by ample historical evidence.  I am optimistic about its potential because, by connecting the Turnpike not just to Norristown, but to its riverfront, the second of the fundamental realities that have always governed life along the river—Transportation--can interact with the first—the River itself—to their mutual benefit, and thus to the Norristown/Bridgeport area.   

The most important fact about the components of this project is that they are interconnected.  A recent news article put it this way: 

Without a retooled Lafayette, the interchange doesn’t happen. Without both of them, prospects for regional growth and a revamped Norristown—particularly its riverfront—are limited.” 

Truer words were never written.  In fact, the extent of a “revamped Norristown” will be dependent on how effectively it utilizes its most significant asset, the riverfront.  I'll have more to say about this in a later post, but this one is about transportation.  So for now, I'll just note that transportation is a means of getting somewhere, and today that somewhere is not just to the Schuylkill River, but along it.  There is more to this than just automobiles, and that’s where interconnection becomes even more significant.  Connecting to the Schuylkill River Trail is an opportunity that must not be missed, so don’t think of Lafayette Street as just an automobile project; connections to the Trail will also be important.  Revival must be a multi-faceted event, and that requires interconnecting and mutually reinforcing efforts.  It begins with “access to transportation,” regardless of how you are transported.