One group says 'No!' to King of Prussia rail proposal
February 10, 2016
Jason Laughlin, Philadelphia Inquirer
Next month the region will see the five proposals for the King of Prussia rail spur whittled down to one. SEPTA is presenting at a series of public meetings the recommended locally preferred alternative for the five-mile extension to the Norristown High Speed Line. The dates of the meetings haven’t been set yet, but one group is already preparing to show up fighting.
A petition to give Upper Merion residents a vote on the extension has attracted 405 signatures in three months, as of Tuesday night. A group called NoKOPRail with a presence on Twitter and Facebook has sprung up to support the petition.
For context, 405 signatures is a pretty small number for a community of almost 30,000 people, according to census data, but the group has made enough noise to draw the attention of SEPTA officials.
“We’ve met with some of their members at other public meetings for the project,” said Liz Smith, SEPTA’s manager of long range planning.
The group has a lot of grievances. SEPTA has communicated its plans poorly. The rail goes too close to residences. It won’t get the use SEPTA is predicting. It’s not clear where the money is coming from. Perhaps most importantly for those who live in Upper Merion, the group argues the rail won’t be used by the people who live around it.
“A lot of our concerns are you’re shoehorning a train into an area that wasn’t designed for trains to begin with,” said Dan Cowhey, one of the group’s leaders.
He said there are already plenty of places with access to rail near to King of Prussia, including Bridgeport, Norristown and Gulph Mills.
Cowhey worried an elevated rail destroying the character of the area’s neighborhoods, and concerns about funding for the project have yet to be fully answered. Federal money, about $20 million, is going to pay for 30 percent of the design phase, SEPTA has said, but the project now has a price tag of more than $1 million and it isn’t clear yet where that money will come from. SEPTA plans to pursue funds through the federal New Starts program.
NoKOPRail also rebuts one of the central arguments in favor of the rail spur, that it will become a vital link to King of Prussia’s retail businesses. The area has become a big economic driver. It has more jobs than any other in Montgomery County, with 57,000 jobs, and it is near the top of the list in the region in job creation. King of Prussia’s vision for the future includes denser, more walkable development, but right now the community has a lot of big box stores and sprawl. A rail that caters to shopping might not be a winning proposition, Cowhey said.
“I’ve seen the way people shop at King of Prussia,” he said. “You go to King of Prussia you’ve got bags and bags.”
Numbers released recently by the economy league tell a different story. Over 20 years the rail could bring $540 million to $946 million in real estate value and 1,000 or more jobs annually, up to 29,000 new King of Prussia employees. The rail project also could be a boon for commuters, eventually saving drivers 1.7 million to 2.1 million hours per year in time spent on congested roads. SEPTA also estimated the extension would add 8,500 riders a day.
The new proposal debuting in March was designed to address some of the concerns about the rail, including the fears that it will bring roaring trains too close to homes.
“The comments we received from those property owners were very heavily taken into account when we made that decision,” Smith said.
She also doesn’t agree that locals won’t use the extension.
“Most of the people we've spoken to in the area...that they would indeed use it,” she said.
Cowhey says the number of signatures on the petition isn’t representative of the opposition to the rail, and his group will be doing grass roots efforts like distributing flyers and visiting neighborhoods to build opposition.
After a long period of whittling down plans to a final five, next month will provide a more tangible sense of what a King of Prussia rail extension may look like. Whatever comes along, it isn’t likely Cowhey is going to like it.
“It just doesn’t seem like this is the rail project for King of Prussia,” he said.