Is the King of Prussia train, in the works for 50 years, picking up steam?
February 5, 2016
Mark Dent, Billy Penn
The idea of connecting King of Prussia to Philadelphia by rail has been kicked around for almost half a century.
Back in 1968, the Inquirer ran a map with several SEPTA plans, illustrating with a dotted line a proposed extension of what was then referred to as the P&W Railroad to King of Prussia. These days we call the P&W the Norristown High Speed Line.
And nearly 50 years later, a similar plan is still being suggested.
SEPTA and Montgomery County leaders have proposed an extension of the High Speed Line to King of Prussia at an estimated cost of $1 billion, or $300 million more than NASA paid to send a spacecraft to Pluto. While studies have shown a KOP rail line would benefit thousands of workers in what is considered the area’s largest hub of employment outside of Philly, some residents balk at the cost and the changes they believe it would force upon Upper Merion Township. Over the next few months, we’ll find out whether KOP will finally get a rail route or if the plan will lead to nowhere, as it has decade after decade.
According to SEPTA, this rendition of the proposed extension has advanced further than any other KOP plan. Liz Smith, SEPTA’s manager of long-range planning, said the KOP extension was included in SEPTA’s most recent strategic business plan for the first time. Later this year, SEPTA is also scheduled to release a Draft Environmental study it has been working on since 2013 that would describe in greater depth implications for the community and project’s finances. The actual engineering and construction would take up to eight years after approval.
Proponents of the plan stress possible economic benefits into the billions of dollars: They’re counting potential new jobs, hours saved from sitting in traffic jam, and the potential for new development. According to a study released in December from SEPTA and the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, about 95 percent of King of Prussia’s 50,000 workers commute from elsewhere. Buses provide the only public transit available to and from Philadelphia, and they get stuck on the Schuylkill like everyone else.
“Now is the time to do this,” said Eric Goldstein, executive director of the King of Prussia District and a leader of the awareness group the KOP Rail Coalition. “It is absolutely necessary to connect King of Prussia by rail.”
The proposed routes of the KOP extension.
Of course, the same could have been said in 1968. What’s prevented the rail line from becoming a reality?
As you’d probably guess, the price tag has always had plenty to do with it. SEPTA had no possibility of affording a KOP extension when it proposed one 50 years ago, or any of the other times since. The transit organization routinely faced shortfalls and could only afford to repair and improve the infrastructure it already had. The Airport Line is the only rail line that has been added since the ’60s. The Norristown High Speed Line and the Regional Rail lines are former parts of the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads and Conrail that date back as far as the 1800s. The passage of a $2.3 billion state funding bill breathed new life into KOP plan in 2013.
The $1 billion cost of the KOP extension is twice the amount that was estimated when the project was brought up in 2013. SEPTA anticipates a federal grant from the “New Starts” program would cover about half of the cost. For now, SEPTA has not determined how much it would be willing to pay for the project. Smith said the decision won’t be addressed for at least another one and a half years, after the completion of a financial impact statement. Local and state funding, as well as private funding, have been discussed as possibilities, with nothing set.
Dan Cowhey, leader of an organization bluntly called No KOP Rail, worries significant portions of the cost would need to be footed by local taxpayers. The recently-formed group started a petition opposing the KOP extension that has accrued more than 400 signatures and received a response from state assemblyman Tim Briggs. They have several complaints with the project, from poor communication from SEPTA and local leaders to the possibility of the rail extension taking away what the group calls Upper Merion’s secluded rural feel.
“It seems to me,” he said over email, “that this project, like past projects, is poorly planned and shoehorned into an area that isn’t really designed to support rail.”
Goldstein says King of Prussia is continuing to grow. The mall and business park are expanding, and a retail and restaurant development is slated for the old Valley Forge Golf Club. In presentations, he keeps saying “the stars are aligned.”
If they really are, it would be the first time in 50 years.