Streetsplainer: There’s no trolley, so why the tracks?

Welcome to Streetsplainers, an occasional series of answers to those often overlooked questions about our beleaguered/beloved transportation systems: Just what the heck is that thing in the road? Why on Earth would SEPTA do that? How does that weird doohickey work? E-mail Jim your questions, and he’ll chase down the answers, hopefully in a reliably on-time fashion.

Sometimes, bicycling around a city can make you feel a little like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What’s a rolling boulder compared to a Ford Excursion rolling through a stop sign? Like booby-trap spears, parked car doors can suddenly open, waiting to nail the unsuspecting. Our pitfalls are potholes, and jaywalkers are our angry natives.

These are all dangers most city cyclists take in stride. They brush off flat tires and rain-slicked streets the way Indy dusts spiders off his back.

But trolley tracks? Even the most unflappable pedal crusaders react to trolley tracks the way Indiana Jones does to snakes, likely to scream: “I HATE THEM!

Tires can slip on the tracks’ metal, causing the bike to fishtail. Wheels can slide into track grooves, catching the bike and sending riders flying head over heels. Trolley tracks are particularly dangerous for road bikes with thinner wheels and smoother tires.

Most cyclists try to avoid roads with trolley tracks – just look at how few CyclePhilly App users road along 11th or 12th Street, which have tracks, compared to 13th, which has a bike lane, or bike-lane-free 10th. 

Unlike Dr. Jones with asps, cyclists can’t douse trolley tracks in gasoline and light them on fire. Well, they could, but that would be illegal, and while it would probably look really cool, like that flashy swordsman, in the end it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

For the Route 15 trolley that runs along Girard Avenue and the handful of Green Line routes in West Philly, the tracks are an understandably necessary hazard. But there are plenty of abandoned trolley lines in Philadelphia, like those running on Swanson Street near South Philly’s big box stores or the old Route 23 line, causing riders to forlornly wonder: “Trolley tracks. Why did it have to be trolley tracks?

Why not just get rid of them?

Well, money, says SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams: “To repave the street [over unused trolley tracks] would be costly for us, considering our capital budget and the backlog of repair work we have to do.”

According to SEPTA, completely removing trolley tracks from just a single intersection would cost between $85,000 and $130,000. Extrapolating that to the entire 13.8 miles of the Route 23, and doubling it because there are north bound and south bound tracks to consider, you’ll come up with a figure somewhere between a buttload and how much the Phillies are overpaying Ryan Howard right now. It’s a lot of money and SEPTA has a lot of other spending priorities – you do want to see SEPTA Key sometime this decade, right?

That said, “It costs a lot of money and we have more important things to buy,” isn’t a great answer. Any statement that can respond to, “Why aren’t we making this infrastructure investment?” just as well as “Why can’t Jim buy that totally sweet Staff of Ra headpiece/Marion’s medallion?” is a deeply unsatisfying one. It’s a truism, begging the question of why one kind of spending is prioritized over another.

For SEPTA, spending millions on a safety issue that effects a still small cycling population that has largely learned to avoid the hazard in question isn’t exactly a sound investment.

Track removal would also face significant political opposition in many cases, particularly with regards to the Route 23 trolley tracks that run from Chestnut Hill to South Philly. Route 23 was converted to a bus line back in 1992, but trolley enthusiasts still dream of streetcar resurrection. (SEPTA recently decided to split the 23 bus into two overlapping routes.)

Removing all of those tracks, which mainly run along 11th and 12th Streets in Center City, would infuriate this small but vocal constituency. But with the launch of Indego in that area, and a system expansion in South Philly in the works, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia urged SEPTA and the Philadelphia Streets Department to pave over some of the tracks more problematic intersections. Indego attracts more novice riders who haven’t learned how to navigate the tricky tracks.

After the Bike Coalition got the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers to sign off, SEPTA and the city agreed, and began to complete pavement overlays on twenty-five intersections in May. Completing a pavement overlay, i.e. simply paving over the tracks without removing them first, costs around $12,000 to $40,000 per intersection. The tracks remain in between intersections, signaling a commitment to restore the trolley someday.

SEPTA remains on the hook for maintaining the pavement between the tracks and within 18 inches of them.  So long as there are trolley tracks there, even paved over, SEPTA, per an agreement with the city of Philadelphia, retains repair responsibilities above them. If those tracks were removed, however, then maintenance duties would revert back to Philadelphia or PennDOT, depending on the street. Ripping up the tracks and resurfacing those roads would cost an estimated $1.5-$3.5 million per mile.

Merely maintaining the pavement is a cheaper alternative, at least in the short-term.

It’s fairly affordable to fill a pothole, and even complete resurfacing is cheaper. Using PennDOT’s recent announcement that it was spending $13.4 million to resurface 22 miles of Philly highways as an extremely rough guide, it costs about $609,000 a mile to resurface a road. Resurfacing only happens every decade or so, and SEPTA’s costs for replacing an about five foot width of pavement would be lower than the costs of replacing a full, wide stretch of highway.

If and when SEPTA decides to restore the 23 trolley, it would cost a pretty penny. Most, if not all, of the tracks would need to be ripped up and replaced. SEPTA is currently replacing tracks on its Route 15 and Route 11 lines. The Route 15 project will cost about $3.5 million for a mile of track replacement. The Route 11 line was $3.2 million for just under a mile. Route 23 was 13.8 miles, and at a conservative $3 million per mile, that’s $41.4 million.

More importantly, a restored 23 Trolley would require new tracks, station upgrades, and brand new, ADA-compliant streetcars. All those improvements, in addition to just the track work, would cost hundreds of millions.

Restoration supporters shouldn’t hold their breaths: SEPTA has set aside $2 million in its twelve year capital program to investigate restoring trolley service along the 23 Route and the old 56 route. The earliest the current budget projects that study to begin would be 2021.

Finally, in case you were wondering who represents the salmon and other jerk cyclists (you know who you are) in this overdrawn Indiana Jones analogy: they’re Shia LaBeouf, who ruins everything

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