Adding up the impact of the papal visit on Pa. ‘burbs: A plus or a minus?

Officials are still calculating the total cost of the pontiff’s visit — but many Philadelphia suburbs have tallied up tens of thousands of dollars in expenses.

Security and transit concerns put towns — particularly those with operating SEPTA stations — on high alert over the weekend as papal pilgrims made their way into the city.

Upper Darby police superintendent Michael Chitwood said that the high number of riders at 69th Street Station, which was servicing the Norristown High Speed Line, Market-Frankford Line, trolleys and buses, called for extra security.

“If the Russians tried to take over, we would have beat ’em back,” he said. “Between police and National Guard troops, we have the area very, very secure.”

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That security came at a cost. Chitwood estimateds it will cost more than $200,000 to cover the 125 police officers, 50-plus firefighters as well as medical staff and other public employees working for the township over the weekend.

“That’s a big bill, and we don’t know where to send the bill,” he said.

While the World Meeting of Families — organizers of the Catholic conference in the week leading up to the visit of Pope Francis and in charge of coordinating the weekend itself — said it would reimburse Philadelphia $12 million for the city’s expenses. But, so far, suburban officials are left holding their bills.

Although the visit was deemed a “national special security event” by the federal Department of Homeland Security, that designation has no corresponding funds.

High expectations, high costs

Bristol Township acting Lt. Ralph Johnson said his force secured the area around Croydon Station, only to have ridership fall far short of projections. SEPTA predicted 11,000 riders, but he said the most he saw was about 800 on Sunday.

Going into the pope’s visit with a “plan for the worst, hope for the best” mentality meant that his  department shelled out an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 for overtime alone, in spite of lower than expected need.

Johnson said the department was able to rein in some costs as it became clear not all staff time was needed.

“As soon as we saw the impact — particularly on Sunday — was going to be so little, we deactivated,” said Bob Kagel, Chester County’s director of emergency services. He said he’s “confident” the cost to Chester County will total less than $20,000, although that doesn’t count Tredyffrin Township, where  an Amtrak station was running during the weekend.

This is not to say everyone lost money last weekend. While some businesses in Philadelphia kvetch about lost trade, some areas of the suburbs saw an uptick in attendance at tourist attractions.

“Valley Forge National Park was packed” on Friday, said Michael Bowman, president of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board.

Bowman has also been following the impact on area hotels. For the same weekend last year, hotel occupancy was at 59 percent. This year, “we were at like 71 percent as of Thursday,” he said.

“The hoteliers, the businesses that I’ve spoken to, are happy,” said Bowman.

So far, taxpayers are the ones on the hook.

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