Secret Service calling shots for (but saying little else about) Papal Visit

If you’ve been frustrated with the lack of details so far about road closures and other transportation disruptions to expect during the Papal Visit in September, there is one agency to blame: the United States Secret Service.

Those desperate for more detailed information than the broad strokes released at last week’s transportation plan announcement will need to wait until early September, says Secret Service spokesman Robert Hoback.

“We will issue a joint transportation [and] public safety press release … probably three weeks out [from the Papal visit],” Hoback told PlanPhilly. That release will specify which roads will be closed (and when), and where security checkpoints will be established. It will also contain a list of specifically prohibited and permitted items for attendees to carry with them, and detailed maps showing how to navigate the area surrounding the Papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Pope Francis’ visit has been designated a National Special Security Event by Department of Homeland Security, meaning the Secret Service runs the show as lead agency for the design and implementation of the security plan.

Armchair transportation planners were swift to decry on social media SEPTA’s and PATCO’s plans to close most of their rail stations in order to run express, limited service trains from the remainder. Similar criticisms were leveled at SEPTA for not yet saying which Center City stations it will have open (PATCO trains will only stop at 9th/10th and Locust Street Station in Philadelphia, and the Lindenwold, Woodcrest and Broadway stops in New Jersey).

All of those trains will only run direct service, meaning one stop to pick up passengers outside Center City, and one stop to unload.

Since the last Papal visit in ’79, the world has changed a bit. Sure, the Phillies were as mediocre back then as they are today, but 1979 was a time before Papal assassination attempts, before bombings at large gatherings like the 1996 Olympics and the Boston Marathon, and before September 11th made Americans profoundly attuned to even attenuated risks of terrorism.

Regardless of whether the world is any more dangerous today than it was back then, it certainly seems scarier, and large events heighten those fears.

Before detailed multi-agency report comes out in early September, only general, basic information will be released in a series of announcements like last week’s release. Citing the changing nature of the security plans, Hoback refused comment on which streets might be closed for the Papal Visit or even when general information regarding road closures might be released.

At Monday’s PENJERDEL Council Transportation Council, transportation officials publically confirmed what some city officials have grumbled about in private: the Secret Service’s security dictates are trumping transportation, logistics and communications concerns in the lead up to Pope Francis’ visit.

The Papal Visit is still over three months away, which can make these grumbles seem like little more than the grousing that comes from catching public flak over decisions beyond their bureaucratic control.

But some travelers have already started booking flights and hotels. At the forum, SEPTA CEO Joe Casey said he heard reports of Main Line hotels advertising shuttle services to Wayne Station during the papal visit.

“Which is great,” Casey said, “except we weren’t servicing Wayne Station in our plans.”

So, Casey said SEPTA urged the Secret Service to publicize the authority’s station closure plan sooner rather than later. “We were pushing [the Secret Service],” said Casey. “And luckily they allowed us to present our plan.”

To be clear, Casey and the other officials all characterized the Secret Service’s security concerns and preference to hold off on releasing information as “understandable” and “important”.

And Philadelphia International Airport CEO Mark Gale noted the added challenges of planning for this particular Pope, who is fond of slipping tight security to interact directly with the people. To wit, Popemobile fans may be disappointed to learn that Francis dislikes riding in the protective bubble, preferring regular, open-air convertibles instead. Those are the kinds of things that make security teams nervous, and more likely to err on the side of caution in their planning.

As a former D.C. resident, I can assure you that the Secret Service feels no compunction shutting down wide swathes of streets; at times, it can feel like jamming traffic is an integral part of the Service’s modus operandi.

Officials continue to bandy about a guesstimate of 1 to 2 million visitors, although PHL’s Gale acknowledged at Monday forum that, “by some accounts, with Francis being so wildly popular, numbers could easily climb much higher than that.”


DRPA and SEPTA management employees are already planning to camp out in their offices during the papal visit. DRPA CEO John Hanson and SEPTA’s Casey both said they had made arrangements to set up cots in their headquarters for essential staff.  

Casey likened the visit to a “hurricane or a major snow storm” urging area residents to just assume and accept that, as during those disruptive weather events, transit services simply won’t be available.

When asked about accessibility concerns for the many wheelchair-bound individuals one can expect to come, seeking papal benediction, Casey said: “We chose some stations specifically because those are accessible.”

But SEPTA’s CEO had little else to offer those concerned about the likely increased demand on SEPTA’s paratransit system. “We’re still looking at that.” 

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