SEPTA hears criticism of proposed bus route through University City

SEPTA’s proposed Route 49 bus represents a potential transportation gold rush, supporting residential real estate in Brewerytown, Fairmount and Grays Ferry by linking those neighborhoods with job-rich University City. But, just like a real gold rush, the proposal has inspired jealousy by those whose own claims haven’t struck transit paydirt.

At Tuesday’s annual service plan hearing, the penultimate step in the process of changing routes before a vote by the transit authority’s board, SEPTA planners heard it from both ends of the proposed Route 49, which would run between 33rd and Cecil B. Moore to 33rd and Dickinson via University City. The University of Pennsylvania, seemingly a major beneficiary of the proposed route, encouraged SEPTA to move it to serve the newly opened Pennovation Works campus at 3401 Grays Ferry Avenue, currently served by one public bus route. Strawberry Mansion residents asked SEPTA to extend the route proposal further north, to the recently renovated bus loop at 33rd and Dauphin.

Tyrone Williams, a community liaison for the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center, said SEPTA “disrespected” both him and the community by not coming to it earlier to discuss the proposal. SEPTA first visited SMNAC at a community meeting planned for an unrelated topic on April 20th. SEPTA held open houses on the proposed route in Fairmount in late March, but had discussed the idea for years prior.

In response, Steve D’Antonio, manager of city service planning for SEPTA, said the authority didn’t make a concerted outreach effort into the neighborhood because the proposed route wasn’t heading into Strawberry Mansion. D’Antonio also noted that SEPTA staff reached out to both of the neighborhood’s elected officials, State Rep. Donna Bullock and Council President Darrell Clarke. According to D’Antonio, neither expressed concern about the proposal’s terminus at 33rd and Cecil B. Moore.

Brian Manthe, director of business services at Penn, offered the Pennovation Works Complex for SEPTA bus driver bathroom breaks at the end of the route. SEPTA officials said extending the route to stop there, rather than in the heart of Grays Ferry, would undermine service to the neighborhood itself.

Extending the route in either direction would come at a cost. The added travel times would either slow down the route or require additional vehicles. It would also increase hours by bus drivers. SEPTA says those aren’t in the budget.

Still, SEPTA officials said they would consider changes to the proposal if the hearing examiner, independent attorney Eugene Cipriani, included them in his recommendations. If that happens, Route 49 would likely go ahead as planned starting this fall, and then the changes would be considered going forward.

Matt Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP) said SEPTA could avoid these planning headaches with a simple fare proposal. “If SEPTA eliminated the transfer fee, people wouldn’t care as much about two-seat rides,” he said, referring to the “two seats” riders use when they transfer buses during a trip.

DVARP backed the proposed new route, along with the proposed Roosevelt Boulevard Direct service, which would introduce some bus rapid transit elements to a new route between Frankford Transportation Center and the Neshaminy Mall. SEPTA officials said the route would shave 30 percent off travel times compared to the existing Route 14 and expected the service would quickly attract 1,400 weekday riders.

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