PopeBus to provide park-and-ride service to SEPTA regional rail stations for papal visit

 (Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo)

(Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo)

Move over, Popemobile! The PopeBus is coming to town.

More specifically, dozens of PopeBuses will be coming to over 50 towns across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland to pick up papal pilgrims and drop them off at SEPTA regional rail stations, where the faithful and curious alike will be able to board trains into Philadelphia to see His Holiness.

RYDE, the California-based company that’s also offering shuttle bus service into Philadelphia for the papal visit from across the Northeast U.S., is partnering with the World Meeting of the Families and SEPTA to provide this service, which may help alleviate the travel concerns that have troubled some in the suburbs.

SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said the transit authority was “very supportive” of the PopeBus. “We have plenty of passes available and space available and we’re very excited to have the opportunity to bring even more people into Center City to visit the pope,” Williams told PlanPhilly.

According to figures Williams emailed to PlanPhilly on Friday, there are 249,570 regional rail papal passes still available: 129,751 left for Saturday and 119,819 for Sunday out of the 175,000 passes per day SEPTA made available. Williams noted that the airport line figures are low because riders will be allowed to buy day of and use regular fares to ride from Philadelphia International. Williams also added that there still is “plenty of time left,” for passengers to buy passes.

While the huge sum of remaining tickets left may seem disappointing, Williams noted the passes sold already dwarf regular ridership: 100,430 riders would be over ten times the regular weekend ridership and over three times weekday ridership.

Round trip bus tickets will range between $15 and $49 dollars, depending on distance, with most tickets costing $29. Passengers will have the option of purchasing a one-day SEPTA regional rail pass when they buy their bus ticket.

The buses will depart from various park-and-ride locations in towns ranging from 60 to 90 miles away. RYDE is trying to upgrade some locations to even larger parking lots – think Walmarts and malls – said co-founder Bob Aube.

The idea of shuttling visitors to SEPTA’s regional rail stations emerged after news of the anemic regional rail ticket sales emerged during RYDE’s talks with the World Meeting of the Families to potentially create a bus drop-off point near or within the Francis Festival Grounds. “But then we realized that there are train tickets left and SEPTA was concerned about parking at their stations,” said Aube, noting that every bus replaces 30 parked cars.

RYDE is a new company that specializes in providing transportation to large, infrequent events, such as NFL playoff games, music festivals and races. Aube told PlanPhilly that most people don’t make travel plans until the week before the event. “We expect to sell tickets up to Friday night,” he said.

While RYDE is providing charters for it’s other shuttle service from farther away cities, the PopeBus will be a slightly more modest ride, as befitting a Pope named after St. Francis of Assisi: yellow school buses. RYDE has reserved 100 school buses from Frist Student, a school bus supplier, with the option to add more if needed.

Most pick-up locations will offer two pickup times per day of the visit, using the same bus. That means the second pickup time depends on a bus making it to the designated SEPTA station and then returning in a short window. Aube admitted there would be some risk of delays for the later buses.

“There are no guarantees,” Aube said.

If traffic is really bad, there is a risk that the last SEPTA trains from those stations to the Francis Festival Grounds will have left. SEPTA’s regional rail lines will only run into the city until 12 noon over the papal visit weekend, and then will start running return trips at 5:30 p.m.

For example: PopeBus currently has a shuttle leaving the Dover Annex Park and Ride in Toms River, NJ at 6:45 a.m., and then returning for a scheduled 9 a.m. pickup. Those buses will drop off passengers at Levittown. That trip takes an estimated 1 hour and 6 minutes according to Google Maps. Assuming 10 minutes to make the drop off in Levittown, the second trip would not be able to leave Toms River until 9:05 a.m.

That alone would leave ample time most days to get to Levittown by noon. But that same hour-long trip has often taken this reporter two hours to make when traffic fails to cooperate. If traffic adds just 15 minutes to the one hour and six minute estimate, that second train would miss the 12 noon cutoff by ten minutes.

In response to PlanPhilly’s concerns, Aube said that his team at RYDE will reassess the time estimates and adjust departures as needed. He also noted that the company will have extra buses waiting to fill in should bad traffic makes a second trip by the original bus untenable. “We will have GPS on the buses, [and] if it’s not moving [fast enough], we can access another bus,” said Aube.

And what if a later bus still shows up late? Williams said SEPTA “will compare the number of people boarding trains to the number of passes sold and adjust the schedule slightly to make sure we’ve gotten most of the people.”

“But if a bus does not arrive during that period of time, we will have to follow the schedule as planned,” she said, adding that she hopes the PopeBus pickup schedules would provide ample time to ensure passengers can catch their trains.

This announcement comes days after SEPTA said it would keep more stations open on its Market Frankford and Broad Street Lines in the hopes of encouraging ridership. That move itself came after a change of tone among city officials, who went from ominous warnings of arduous walks and security measures to gleeful promises of an awe-inspiring time. While some outside experts still predict the papal visit will bring huge, happy crowds, concerns that a burdensome security plan and poor communication strategies might scare off visitors and residents alike remain.

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