SEPTA wins $20 million in competitive grants

SEPTA has snagged two competitive federal grants totaling $20 million.

The cash-strapped transit agency won a $15-million Federal Transit Administration grant that will, with a local match, go toward purchasing about 200 hybrid articulated buses to replace its aging fleet, which operates using diesel fuel.

SEPTA had been planning on replacing its articulated fleet but had decided against the more expensive hybrid model, which is more fuel efficient and less polluting, after state infrastructure funding was cut.

The new buses, which will be purchased over a period of  five years, will enable SEPTA to become “more sustainable,” according to Byron Comati, SEPTA’s director of strategic planning and analysis.

And the agency won another $5 million FTA grant to pay for the reconstruction of a historic bus facility at 33rd and Dauphin streets in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia.

The total project, projected to cost $6.5 million, will renovate a historic trolley depot at the site which is currently used by SEPTA employees, and will provide landscaping and accessibility improvements to the shelter, which serves five different bus lines.

Comati called the project “a little bit out of the ordinary” but said the renovations were meant to spur economic growth in the neighborhood.

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission Board approved both projects at its Thursday meeting.

The board also approved part of a major project to close the last gap in Interstate 95 by constructing an interchange with Interstate 276 in Bucks County.

The first phase of the project is projected to cost $424 million and continue through 2017 or 2018.

The DVRPC Board approved the spending of $15 million of federal dollars earmarked to the project.

The board also gave the OK to a $140,000 study to analyze innovative, low-cost ways of reducing congestion along the Interstate 95 and Interstate 476 in Chester City, Delaware County.

Among other things, the study will look at allowing traffic to use the shoulder on the northbound segment of the Blue Route during peak hours.

That proposal drew questions from the DVRPC Board, with Rina Cutler, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, requesting that the study look at opening the shoulder up to bus traffic only.

Cutler, piggy-backing off a question from a member of the audience, said that the city wanted to see improved transportation of people through the interchange but that increased automobile access wasn’t necessarily the best way to achieve that.

Her comments were echoed by Comati, though project manager Stanley Platt said that the study would focus on safety issues surrounding the idea and, at this point, wouldn’t try to differentiate between car and bus usage. No SEPTA buses currently use that stretch of either highway.

The board also awarded $1.2 million worth of small-scale planning grants to 24 Pennsylvania municipalities as part of its Transportation and Community Development Initiative.

Four of the 22 projects are located in Philadelphia and include funding a streetscape and design plan for Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia, as well as funding for a Center City signal timing study that will be used to develop the preliminary engineering for a proposed bicycle track along Market Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Center City.

The funds are being provided mostly through federal highway money.

And two members of the public criticized the DVRPC’s shuttering of the Regional Citizens Committee its public input body.

Former RCC member Sue Herman accused the board of silencing “the objective voice of the general public,” and Jon Frey, a leader of Pennsylvania Transit Expansion Coalition, which has publicly battled DVRPC and SEPTA, accused the organization of violating an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration by shutting the committee down.

DVRPC spokeswoman Candace Snyder countered that the RCC “did not work for us,” and executive director Barry Seymour said that DVRPC hadn’t violated any agreements.

A new Public Participation Task Force, which will be selected by the nine counties with at-large members chosen by a committee, is expected to form early next year.

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