The lines at the King of Prussia Mall can wrap around counters and outside of shops on Black Fridays and the occasional no-special-color, just-busy Saturdays. The lines at the Auntie Anne’s in the KOP mall can be so bad, the execs at Simon decided to have five of them. The King of Prussia Mall even has two Easter Bunnies, which is two more than most dentists’ kids ever get to see, just because of long queues.
But as bad as the lines at the Mall are, the lines to the Mall can be even worse. Traffic chokes this regally named part of Upper Merion Township, which is why SEPTA is in the middle of a multiyear look at extending a spur line off of the Norristown High Speed Line (NHSL) to service the Mall and the Valley Forge Convention Center and Casino.
Currently, the NHSL travels from 69th Street Station on the Western edge of Philadelphia to Norristown in Montgomery County, serving the Main Line along the way. There is no service in King of Prussia, though, which is home to the second largest shopping mall in the United States and adjacent to Valley Forge National Historical Park. A number of large business parks and the Valley Forge Casino are also in the area, which is home to over 57,000 jobs, making it one of the larger employment centers in the region.
SEPTA planners met with over fifty members of the public Monday afternoon as part of an extensive public outreach effort to explain the planning process, allay fears and receive feedback. The occasionally animated crowd was somewhat ambivalent after a presentation by SEPTA officials, with some expressing enthusiastic support while others voiced concerns.
“I think the [extension plan] takes into consideration everything except the residents and homeowners,” said James Jones, a resident of King of Prussia for 39 years who felt the plan helps business interests but hurts residents. “It should be called ‘the Mall rail system’ – get rid of the King of Prussia part.”
Skeptical residents like Jones seemed most concerned about the impact the extension would have on property values and on local taxes, fearing the former would fall while the later went up.
The alarm over property values stem largely from concerns about the line’s noise, but those may be unsound. All of the alternatives call for elevated rail, which will reduce noise at ground level. More importantly, the NHSL trains are relatively quiet and certainly quieter than the subway trains on the Market Frankford El or Regional Rail trains. And because they wouldn’t cross at grade, the conductors would be able to spare the horn.
“This is not the Market Frankford Line!” said Liz Smith, SEPTA’s project manager for the extension. And it wouldn’t just sound different, it would look different, too: it would be concrete supported by single pillars, rather than steel trestles.
Others in the crowd were much more supportive. When one extension opponent prefaced her question with “this won’t help area residents,” others in the crowd shouted their disagreement as the SEPTA officials asked the crowd to remain respectful.
“I think it’s a great idea, from an economic development standpoint – improving jobs, bringing the 1960s, sprawling, auto-centric community, giving it more multi-modal options.“ said RJ Griffin. “And from a congestion standpoint, it’s also a great thing.”
Griffin said the extension would allow him to take a combination of regional rail and the NHSL to work. The 25 year old currently commutes to King of Prussia from Roxborough by car. “A commute that should take 15-20 minutes, actually takes an hour and 15 minutes,” said Griffin.
After the presentation, the planners asked the crowd to split up into smaller groups, and after arming them with maps, asked for more pointed feedback. From the murmurs and mutterings around the tables, most of the participants sounded more excited than agitated, but whether that was just due to self-selection bias remains to be seen.
And despite some grumblings, the extension has received support from politicians so far. Byron Comati, Director of Strategic Planning at SEPTA, said that both the Upper Merion Township Board of Supervisors and the Montgomery County Commissioners have been supportive of the the extension planning process to date. In a recent interview with PlanPhilly, incoming PennDOT Secretary and former Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie Richards repeatedly expressed support for the plan.
TRUNKS AND BRANCHES THAT’LL COST A LOT OF GREEN
SEPTA is asking the public to help whittle down the current five alternatives to just one, from what was once a list of over a dozen alternatives. The five alternatives are basically two “branch” variants off of three “trunk” routes from the current NHSL: one following a PECO corridor that carries overhead transmission wires most of the way, another following US Route 202 most of the way, and a third route that would follow the PECO corridor for a bit and then the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The three trunks all end up at the same place: the King of Prussia Mall. Once there, the alternatives all go to the the Valley Forge Convention Center and Casino via one of two branches: heading southwest to the Village at Valley Forge before turning north along N. Gulph Road, or heading northwest to First Avenue and the King of Prussia Business Park, and then east.
Depending on the alternative picked, the extension would add about four miles of track and five to seven stations along a spur west of the existing line. Every second or third train would run along the extension, depending on service needs. All of the alternatives would feature two stops at the King of Prussia Mall and a final stop at the Casino, which is within walking distance of the National Park.
The PECO Alternative wouldn’t be able to service the Village at Valley Forge, hence only five (instead of six) options.
SEPTA’s Comati told PlanPhilly that construction would cost about $500 million. SEPTA hopes to pay for half from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, which is a competitive grant program that pays for up to half of new transportation infrastructure projects.
NHSL EXTENSION TO THE MALL – MORE ALTERNATIVE(S) THAN HOT TOPIC IN THE 90’S
Currently, there are no easy public transportation options to and from King of Prussia. So most people drive, which means braving the capricious traffic conditions on I-76 and I-476. Planners hope that extending the NHSL would help take some cars off those often-packed highways.
King of Prussia boomed in the ’50s and ’60s for the same reason why Philadelphia became the largest city in colonial America: it stood at the confluence of a handful of major pathways for commerce. Whereas Philly was a deepwater port located at the intersection of two rivers, KOP found a trio of major highways – Interstates 76, 276 and 476 – running through town, along with Routes 202 and 422, just as America’ love affair with the automobile was reaching its apotheosis.
Unlike other area suburbs, which developed around a mix of old trolley and rail lines, in addition to cars, KOP is and was completely car-centric. As urban development patterns change, and more individuals – particularly millennials – prefer smaller, more walkable communities to live and work in, officials in suburbs like King of Prussia fear getting left behind. Better public transportation options might help.
Only six SEPTA bus lines operate around King of Prussia today. Those lines – Routes 92, 99, 123, 124, 125 and 139 – operate infrequently and can get bogged down by the intense traffic on the area arterials – a trip from 13th and Market on the 125 bus can take upwards over an hour and 45 minutes. All of those bus routes have “on-time” percentages – meaning within 6 minutes of expected arrival – in the low 60s. Once out of the city, many of the bus stops surfacing these routes lack sidewalks, limiting their accessibility. The NHSL, meanwhile, runs a train every 10 minutes or so during peak service.
SEPTA, in conjunction with a dozen of other governmental agencies and authorities, first began work on the KOP extension in late 2012. A feasibility study finished in 2013 and an alternatives analysis – a study that looks at a handful of different potential paths the extension could take – finished last year. Now, SEPTA is leading the evaluation of the alternatives analysis, which includes public feedback.
In addition to the evaluation, environmental impact studies are being conducted and the draft environmental impact study is scheduled to finish this fall. If all goes according to schedule, a “locally preferred alternative” route will be selected by next spring, clearing the way for the final environmental impact study, which is required in order to receive federal funding. (Despite the name, environmental impact studies consider more than effects on streams and migratory birds – it’s a comprehensive study looking at impacts on the economy, existing traffic conditions and more). Once that is done, there will be another three years of engineering and design work while the extension’s supporters worked to secure local and private funds to match the federal money.
Finally, there would be another three to four years of construction work. The earliest anyone could expect the extension to launch would be 2022.
While it’s too early to say which of the five routes will be picked as the preferred alternative, planners at the open house seemed to be leaning toward one of the two Route 202 options, which would allow for a station near the Valley Forge Shopping Center. Neither of the so-called PECO or Turnpike trunks would have a useful station before the Mall.
The Route 202 option would also allow for a station directly adjacent to the Court area of the bi-sectional mall and another a short walk from the Plaza part of the mall.
But the option that might make the most theoretical sense will need to stand up to neighborhood resistance. Already, neighbors who faced having the line run along their backyards via the PECO option organized a vocal opposition to that route. “The path of least resistance is definitely a factor,” said Comati, while noting that it is a balancing act against increased costs, lessened ridership, and other considerations like environmental impact.
If you missed Monday’s presentation and workshop, don’t fret: SEPTA will hold two more workshops on March 25th: one at 4 P.M. and another at 6:30 P.M. Both will be at the Double Tree Hotel in Valley Forge. If you can’t make those, you can still submit feedback online here or by emailing mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, go to kingofprussiarail.com.