City Planners suggest using Reading Viaduct cut – an old industrial railway tunnel – to get transit riders from Schuylkill to the Delaware

What if Philadelphians could take bus rapid transit from the Schuylkill River to the Delaware River, traveling part of the way beneath the surface in a former industrial railway tunnel – the defunct Reading railroad  cut?

And what if electronic signs told them and other bus users just how long they would have to wait for their connections?

These ideas were among many potential projects to improve transit, cultural institutions, public spaces, public safety and housing the Philadelphia City Planning Commission presented to those attending the the second public meeting for the Central District portion of the city’s comprehensive plan on Monday night.

City planner and Central District Plan Manager Laura Spina gives an overview of some of the big ideas under consideration for the Central draft plan.

The Central District’s boundaries run roughly from Girard Avenue to Washington Avenue, river to river.  “The overall goal we have for the Central District Plan is to basically create a district that accommodates all stages of life,” Spina said. That means the district would work well for children, college students, young adults, families, older adults and seniors, she said. 

Participants were divided into small groups, given enough play money to fund about half the cost of projects in several categories, and to prioritize. Their feedback, and the feedback collected from a repeat session from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Liberty View Ballroom at Independence Visitors Center, will help guide recommended capital budget expenditures contained within the Central District Plan.

The results will be shared at public meetings in February,  Spina said.  A draft plan will be presented to the PCPC in March, followed by a public comment period, with a planning commission vote on adoption in June.

Among other ideas participants considered:

-A new building for the 6th and 9th police districts.

-Creation of a multi-agency task force that would work to get long-vacant buildings developed. The task force would be concerned with tax-delinquent owners and buildings with safety hazards, but also buildings that have simply sat neglected for a long period of time.

-Addition of affordable housing units, with some providing senior housing.

-Redevelopment of the inter-city bus station at 10th & Filbert so that it has a direct connection to Market East Station.

-Expansion of bike infrastructure, with not only more bike lanes and racks, but also a bike station, a “parking garage for bikes,” potentially with a maintenance shop, air pumps, lockers and showers.

-Rehabilitation of the elevated Reading Railroad Viaduct into a park.

PlanPhilly sat in on one of the small group feedback sessions. The participants: Tim Sienold, an architectural rendering artist who has lived in Philadelphia for 16 years, first in Center City and now in South Philadelphia; Hally Chu, who has lived in Chinatown for one month, is a student at City University of New York and a National Urban Fellow assigned to the Philadelphia Managing Director’s office; and Bill Kilrain,  who works in commercial real estate, grew up in Torresdale and has lived in Center City for five years.  City planners Jametta Johnson and Jack Convisor facilitated the discussion and took notes on the group’s comments.

The group expressed a lot of interest in funding transportation projects.

Sienold said he depends on the subway to get around the city, but “I have never taken a bus, because I never have any idea when one is coming.” He uses taxis to get to places without subway stops, he said. But if digital signs noted when the next bus was coming, he would start using the buses instead. 

Chu convinced the gentlemen in her group that revamping the bus terminal, improving bus circulation around the area, and connecting the terminal to Market East Station was a project worth funding, as it would help integrate transit nodes.

The group supported funding the section of the bus rapid transit project from Lemon Hill to the Delaware River – the overland route of which has yet to be determined – but decided not to spend money on BRT Phase II, which would run along the Central Delaware Riverfront.

Kilrain was disappointed that the planners – and SEPTA officials, who are among the agency representatives they have been working with during this process – were proposing BRT instead of light rail.  Light rail is a greener alternative, and it has its own designated track, so congestion is not an issue, he said. The comprehensive plan is a long-range vision, he noted. “In 30 years, they should be able to get something (with light rail) done.”

The group discussion

After the session, Spina said that she anticipated there would be disappointment over the decision to go for BRT instead of light rail. The reasons that decision was made: Time and money. “BRT is about one-third the cost, and it can be put in place within the next 10 years,” Spina said.

SEPTA has recently inspected the tunnel, and found it to be in pretty good shape, she said. The rails, which once carried newsprint to The Inquirer presses and new cars from a former factory across Broad Street, have been removed, she said, and a road bed would need to be created for the buses.

Convisor noted to his group that putting BRT in place now doesn’t mean light rail can’t be added in the future.

Spina said the BRT proposal – both from the Schuylkill to the Delaware, and then along the Delaware – has the support of both SEPTA and the PCPC. She did not know if the administration has committed to the idea.

Chu, Sienold and Kilrain did not support using capital dollars to improve parks and green space in most of the Central District. Kilrain said  that many of the residents in the Central District are some of the most well off in Philadelphia, and that they and the district’s many businesses will often step in and fund things.  But there were exceptions: The group decided to fund the multi-purpose Central Delaware Waterfront trail. And they supported the creation of recreational space in Callowhill and Chinatown, reasoning that there is not only  a dearth of recreational space there, but that those neighborhoods were not as wealthy as some others in the district.

The group supported funding two cycling-related proposals: The addition of more bike lanes, bike racks and other infrastructure and the building of the bicycle garage, which would likely have lockers and showers for commuter’s use.

Together, the proposals would make the city greener, and also safer, for many people, Sienold said.

The group discussed the vacant property task force, and ended up giving it some funding. They liked the idea of getting vacant and tax-delinquent properties developed, but were concerned the task force might be a duplication of efforts of other city agencies.

Spina said the idea for the task force was inspired by Philly Rising, a crime-fighting group with members from the Managing Director’s office, public safety and Licenses & Inspections. City agencies that all have a piece of the tax delinquent/abandoned building problem would be in the same room, working on it together, she said.

Some of the brewing Central Plan ideas weren’t part of the capital projects discussion, because they aren’t really about spending money. One example: Moving some of the walk-a-thons and other events off of the Ben Franklin Parkway and into other areas, such as the Centennial District in Fairmount Park or Independence Mall.

Spina said that spreading the activities around isn’t just about bringing life to other public spaces – another big topic of the night – but sharing the burden that inevitably comes with such big events. The traffic tie-ups are a headache for residents who live near the Parkway, and also can be detrimental to the cultural institutions, she said.

Art Museum officials who are participating in planning discussions said the number of visitors drops 75 percent on weekends when there are events on the parkway, Spina said.

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