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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, February 2, 2018

Will the King of Prussia Rail Project Benefit Bridgeport, Norristown, or even King of Prussia?

It’s about time I got back to discussing my particular interest, “alternate transportation.”  Last month I advocated for the Lafayette Street-to-Turnpike project, as have done previously [5/29/15, 3/11/16, 4/8/16, 1/6/17].  I believe this project to be fundamental to any future renaissance of my favorite town, Norristown, Pennsylvania, and hence I support it.  But advocating for roads always leaves me with an underlying discontent.  I can repress it because, when the goal is community revitalization, one’s ideology should not color one’s examination of a proposal or project.  This month, with greater joy I turn to a currently-under-development-and-may-actually-happen project to build a new rail line in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

The “King of Prussia Rail Project” is only a short—less than five miles—east-west spur to the north-south Norristown High Speed Line that will run between King of Prussia and Bridgeport.  But it isn’t a local project; it’s part of a regional plan.  Its purpose is to establish another connection between King of Prussia and Philadelphia, one not subject to traffic jams.  Any benefits accruing to the residents through whose neighborhoods it will pass will be purely coincidental.

My headline for this post refers to the towns of Bridgeport and Norristown, but just the residents of King of Prussia; that particular Census Area doesn’t need much help.  But it’s going to get help anyway; that’s part of The Project’s reason for being. 

From my perspective, the King of Prussia Rail Project is yet another demonstration of a historical trend about which I have written before [2/11/14, 2/20/14], the shifting of economic influence from Philadelphia to King of Prussia.  The Project’s documents mention how it is designed to connect “Greater Philadelphia’s major centers of commerce and culture.”  Two of these three centers—downtown Philadelphia and University City—are already well connected, located just across a river as they are.  King of Prussia is the third, and despite what on a map may look like good road connections to the city, anyone who has driven them knows better. 

While a direct connection between King of Prussia and the downtown/University City area via the existing Regional Rail line would have been preferable, that was apparently dismissed as unfeasible.  Hence the connection is indirect, using the long-existing Norristown High Speed line to West Philly for most of the actual mileage itself.

Great things are predicted for the project, with most of the benefits seemingly going to King of Prussia.  But that hasn’t stopped the opposition from some King of Prussia residents.   

Local opposition to the project in Upper Merion Township revolves around the usual concerns, i.e., crime, noise pollution, and lowered property values.  These are typical NIMBY issues, the type that surface during every proposal for development.  But some of the arguments of the local opposition do serve to clarify the real intent behind the grand phrases.  Two statements by an opposition leader point out their major issue: "Most of the positives that could come out of this extension would be for people outside Upper Merion Township," and “At best, this train is mainly supported by nonresidents and businesses.”  The author is correct on both points, but that’s not going to make any difference. 

The project is the result of a macro focus on regional transportation; benefits for the King of Prussia residents will be few and far between.  The new line will have five stops in Upper Merion, but only one of them will serve the area residents, the one at Henderson Road.  The others are destination stops at the favored local business locations.  Local opinion seems to have been significant only in the selection of the specific route, particularly in the rejection of the Route 202 route option, which was roundly condemned.  Still, you can’t route the line away from everybody, or it really would serve no purpose.  Some King of Prussia residents remain concerned about the project’s effect on their properties.

My major problem is how Valley Forge Park has become part of the project’s supposed selling points.  The train’s final stop westbound is being touted as “a stone’s throw away” from Valley Forge National Park.  This is more than a little disingenuous; the final stop is at the Valley Forge Casino.  If the Park was a real destination, why not extend the line to the park itself?  Still, I guess it sounds better to invoke history than to admit you are actually just making it easier for more people to come from farther away to throw away their money.

What the project does seem to offer is better transportation for those that use public transit, i.e., working people, and that is certainly a positive.  King of Prussia offers a great many jobs, but is almost inaccessible for anyone without a car. 

Still, despite all the claims about the huge number of riders that will use the trains (ridership on the High Speed Line is expected to increase by between 61% and 81%), don’t count on traffic in King of Prussia getting any better.  The project won’t make an appreciable difference during the already-known bad times of the day (or year). 

So commerce in the King of Prussia area will definitely benefit, as will some of the people that work there, but what about the eastern end, i.e., Bridgeport?  

From the perspective of distance, it is difficult to see how the project can be of anything but help to Bridgeport, although how much is uncertain.  Once completed, a look at the map would show the Borough at the nexus of a transportation network that connects the Borough to a significant portion of the Delaware valley.  Of course, the perspective given to distance simultaneously erases knowledge the details, and it is in the details where the devil resides, is it not?

We must also remember that Bridgeport is already connected to the vast majority of this network, and has been for over one hundred years.  Clearly, its positive impact has been limited.  Will what is only a short extension to the west improve things for Bridgeport, or will it just add more areas to those just travelling through Bridgeport can reach?  And here’s a heretical thought for you: could Norristown’s Lafayette Street Project actually be more beneficial to Bridgeport than King of Prussia Rail?  Time will tell.

As for Norristown, the King of Prussia Rail Project should provide the final piece of evidence about where and what is planned for development.  It’s not Main Street, it’s the Lafayette Street/Schuylkill River corridor, with the Regional Transportation Center as its centerpiece.  Transit connections—Regional Rail, High Speed Line, King of Prussia Rail, buses and bicycles—are what hopes are based on.  They are encouraging more people to pass through, in the hopes that some will like what they see and move nearby.

I actually like this approach, but only one thing about the rail project’s effect on Norristown is clear to me at this point.  Once the King of Prussia Rail Project is completed, people who live north of the Schuylkill River should no longer drive their cars to King of Prussia in order to do their Christmas shopping there.  Drive to the Norristown Transportation Center instead, park your car and take the train.  It has two stops at the Mall, and even if your destination store is some distance from either one, is that really longer than you would have to walk if you parked, assuming you could find a parking space at all?

Amidst all this vagueness, a word of warning: the King of Prussia Rail Project will ultimately depend on Federal money to finance actual construction.  The project, long planned under a more beneficent Federal approach toward rails, was estimated to cost just over $1 billion dollars at this point, and by the time all the required steps are taken, you can expect the total to rise.  Whether we ever see anything more than beautiful “artist’s conceptions,” of the King of Prussia Rail Project will depend on the attitude taken by future Federal administrations.   That renders its near future rather more questionable, although the recent spate of media articles about the project tend to ignore this point.  

Stay tuned.

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