Gazing through transportation’s crystal ball to 2011

2010 has been a big year for regional transportation, with stimulus money driving major upgrades to aging infrastructure and the first of a new fleet of railcars coming online to replace 73 older SEPTA Silverliners.

But what’s ahead for SEPTA and transportation priorities in the year ahead?

PlanPhilly has assembled a list of 10 things transit riders could expect in 2011. Take a look, and add your own entries in the comment section below.

1. A funding solution? Transportation projects across the state were stopped in their tracks when the federal government rejected a plan to toll Interstate 80, blowing a $470 million hole in infrastructure spending that will only get worse over time. While Gov.-elect Tom Corbett has ruled out any tax and fee increases for his administration, legislative leaders of both parties have said that they favor some type of funding fix.

The outcome of that debate ― as well as reauthorization of a federal transportation bill ― will provide the subtext for much of what happens next year. With more money, SEPTA will be able to proceed on big-ticket projects, like extension of regional rail service to Wawa, Chester Heights. Without it, SEPTA will be forced to make stopgap fixes to prevent major system failures, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will preside over an ever-increasing list of aging bridges and highways.

2. New railcars. Though plagued by delays and concerns about workmanship, the rest of SEPTA’s new fleet of 120 Silverliner V railcars should be delivered, representing the first purchase of regional railcars in decades. The new cars should be a big step up from the Silverliner IIs and IIIs they’re replacing, with automatic electronic announcements and signage, as well as more comfortable seats.

3. Smart cards. SEPTA still isn’t sure how to pay for it, but the authority is still saying it plans to award a contract to build a new smart card fare collection system after the new year. SEPTA is aiming to phase out tokens and pioneer a swipe-less open-payment system in which any device ― including credit cards and cell phones ― that have special RFID tags would be able to pay fares at turnstiles and serve as passes.

4. Finishing up stimulus projects. SEPTA finished a few big federal stimulus projects this year, including renovations on trolley routes 101 and 102. Next year, it should finish out its projects, including rebuilds of the Spring Garden and Girard stations on the Broad Street Line and several regional rail stations. The city and surrounding suburbs should also be continuing their build-out of a pedestrian and bike trail network paid for with $23 million in recovery money.

5. One less thing for Stu to complain about? The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission should have bike and pedestrian counters installed throughout the region as part of a new effort to collect data for planning purposes. They will replace a bike counting effort that’s come under fire from Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, a vociferous critic of the Center City bike lanes, because it’s run by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. While the sophisticated sensors might be good news for planners, PlanPhilly does admit to being sad that they diminish the chances of another Stu/biker smackdown in 2011. Let’s face it, those are pretty fun to watch.

6. Transit First. Remember Transit First, the joint city-SEPTA effort to speed up service along specific parts of the SEPTA system? Well, you could be forgiven for forgetting about it, since the effort’s gone largely underground since being announced back in 2009 ― in part to avoid the political backlash that previous stop consolidation efforts have sparked from affected neighborhoods and from City Council. Well, the word is there should be at least a preliminary rollout of Transit First on a couple of routes next year. The hope is that success on those routes will provide a template for extending Transit First across more parts of the system.

7. Sunday service to Wilmington. Delawareans can look forward to Sunday regional rail service starting as early as February. The service, paid for by the state of Delaware, will mirror Saturday service, providing riders with seven round-trip runs between Center City and Wilmington. Newarkers and users of the Churchmans Crossing station are out of luck, though. Service south of Wilmington will continue to be provided only on weekdays.

8. Studies, studies and more studies. Let’s face it: Most studies looking at increasing service don’t go anywhere. But there are a few that will either get under way or wrap up in the coming year that might actually amount to something. Most important is one for the Route 422 corridor, which is examining how to pay for improvements to the congested road and a complementary extension of regional rail service past Norristown. Another is a look at extending regional rail service to Quakertown, which might qualify for federal New Starts money ― a rarity in an older system like SEPTA and an important component in financing a major transit improvement. And finally, Montgomery County is going forward with a study to extend the Norristown High Speed Line out to King of Prussia.

9. BusView. SEPTA has had a prototype of BusView up on its website for a while now, giving real-time information on where buses are along just two routes. The authority’s been careful about releasing a system-wide application before it works out all the bugs ― the Washington, D.C., transit program ran into big trouble with a similar project. Still, SEPTA says BusView is definitely on for next year.

10. Dilworth Plaza and City Hall station. The Center City District put SEPTA in an awkward position when it won a $15 million stimulus grant to turn Dilworth Plaza into an urban oasis, featuring a new lawn and a plaza with a water feature. The project’s intimately tied with a massive $100 million rebuild of the City Hall station beneath it that SEPTA put on hold after its state subsidy got cut. Next year, the authority is going to have to figure out a way to move at least parts of the project forward despite the cash crunch.

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