Presentation of SEPTA's proposed rail spur to King of Prussia greeted with groans

The slide show image depicted a computer rendering of a sleek train traveling along an elevated rail alongside some houses.

Cries of "No!" immediately burst from the audience.

"Those are our homes," one person shouted.

Monday night, SEPTA gave the public a first chance to comment on the preferred plan for a five-mile rail spur to connect Philadelphia to King of Prussia's thriving businesses. There was heated opposition from some of the 200 people at the meeting at the Radisson Hotel in Valley Forge.

Most contentious was the segment of the rail that would run adjacent to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That route would put the elevated tracks near 25 to 29 homes.

One woman said the track would pass about 50 feet from her back door.

"The value of my property is going to be worth zippo," said Kathleen Holtzinger, who lives on Powderhorn Road in the Valley Forge Homes development.

SEPTA officials said the proposed route was one of five reviewed, and it offered the least impact on residential properties.

The transit agency did not rule out the possibility of securing the right-of-way it needs through eminent domain or similar instruments, but said it was too early to know whether that would be necessary.

SEPTA officials emphasized that the proposed route was a starting point, not the final proposal for the spur.

"We want to take this to the public," said Liz Smith, SEPTA's manager of long-range planning. "We want to get impact and feedback from all of you."

The proposed spur, which will carry trains about 17 feet above street level, would use a right-of-way occupied by Peco high-tension wires to the turnpike and follow First Avenue into the King of Prussia business park.

It would include stops at Henderson Road; two stops at the King of Prussia Mall, including one that would deposit passengers inside the mall itself; and two more in the business park, an area being reimagined as a dense mixed-use redevelopment.

An alternative route along Route 202 was not recommended by SEPTA because it would be too disruptive. Some people suggested that businesses along that busy road were getting more consideration than residents.

"I don't know how everyone else feels it," said Joe Groff who lives on Bluebluff Road near the proposed route, "but it feels like the residents are getting the short end of the stick."

Speakers at the meeting questioned the need for the rail spur.

They also raised questions about the stability of the area. Upper Merion is pockmarked with sinkholes. SEPTA officials said they would tie the foundations of the tracks to bedrock to ensure stability, and said they would conduct vibration studies so passing trains wouldn't damage the foundations of homes.

Not all the feedback was negative. Several speakers noted that the rail spur could help mitigate the traffic crush in Upper Merion.

"I've watched the roads get bigger and bigger, and I've watched the traffic get worse and worse," said Jaque Camp, chair of the township's planning commission. "We have to break the cycle."

Others liked the idea of using the train to get dropped off at the mall.

"I could walk to the train," said Debbie Collins, who lives in King of Prussia. "It would be so convenient."

During the meeting, Smith said a SEPTA survey found that 67 percent of about 1,000 respondents, a third of whom lived in Upper Merion, support the extension and 53 percent said they would use it.

Another study projected that 56 percent of riders would come from Montgomery County. Philadelphians would represent 19 percent of users.

Proponents are touting the economic benefits rail access to King of Prussia can bring. Over 20 years, a study from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia projected, rail service could bring $540 million to $946 million in real estate value, thousands of new jobs, and millions of hours in commuting time drivers currently spend on congested roads.

When complete, it's estimated the rail spur would move 8,500 passengers daily.

How to pay for the $1.1 billion project is something of an open question. SEPTA is pursuing about half that amount through federal grant money.

There are two more meetings scheduled: from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Norristown Municipal Building, 235 E. Airy St.; and from 2 to 8 p.m. March 15 at the Doubletree Hotel in Valley Forge, 301 W. Dekalb Pike in King of Prussia.

jlaughlin@phillynews.com

215-854-4587@jasmlaughlin