What to do with the City Branch?

Yesterday I wrote a brief on a Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission report that proposed three alternatives for a 1.6-mile, unused rail right of way running through the heart of the city called the City Branch. All the maps shown here, by the way, are from the DVRPC report.

The report concluded that all three proposals, which each were a variant on some kind of bus route, were not feasible right now. The report took more than a year to produce, and was close to 100 pages long. That seemed like a lot of time to spend on a report that concluded, basically, “don’t bother.”

One of the report’s authors, Betsy Mastaglio, an associate manager in the office of transit, bicycle and pedestrian planning, said spending so much time on a report has its worth, even if the result isn’t an actionable plan. They help establish the environment transit projects must take place within. The report looked at costs, competing alternatives and how the bus route alternatives fit into larger visions for the city.

The trench and tunnel system started out as an aborted attempt at a canal between the city’s two rivers as far back as the 18th century. It eventually became a railway for freight trains. Up until 1992 trains used the path to bring paper to the old Philadelphia Inquirer building on Broad Street. SEPTA bought the property for $8.5 million in 1995. The DVRPC decided early on that returning rail to the City Branch wasn’t practical, so focused on the possibility of buses using the route. Cost was a major deterrent to any of these plans being enacted, but here are the plans themselves, along with the non-funding related problems.

This option, a tourist bus path, was deemed to be redundant because of the service already offered by PHLASH buses. Also, the City Branch runs behind the city’s major museum attractions, something that would likely not appeal to tourists who would want to see the attractive fronts of museums from the Parkway.


The second option, a dedicated express bus route for SEPTA buses. Buses would run faster through the City Branch than on the street, but the speed would largely be a result of bypassing a number of stops in Fairmont. SEPTA would have to establish another bus route to serve those passengers, offsetting the benefits of the express lane. 

The third choice, bus lanes that ran through the City Branch side by side with a bike and walking trail. This option had the same problems as the previous possibilities, the report found, but was further hindered because it essentially duplicated existing bike lanes at street level.

SEPTA is still looking for a transit-related use for the space, Mastaglio said, but finding a way to fit it into the city's existing transportation infrastructure in a way that's cost effective and complimentary to existing services, rather than duplicating them, is a challenge that has yet to be solved.