Businesses bullish for KoP rail as neighbors push for route change

A route shifted 30 yards or so may soothe opposition to plans for a light-rail line to King of Prussia.

At the first of three public comment sessions scheduled this week, people who have opposed the plan said running the light rail north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike might address many of their concerns.

“They have listened, and they’ve accommodated our needs as neighbors,” said Pamela Hale, who lives in Valley Forge Homes, a neighborhood close to the rail’s proposed path.

SEPTA’s preferred route travels along the south side of the turnpike, right past Hale’s neighborhood. The transit agency is considering shifting the elevated tracks to the other side of the highway and away from homes. The change would add $50 million to $75 million to the $1.1 billion estimated cost of the project, said Liz Smith, SEPTA’s director of long-term planning.

SEPTA planners will continue taking public comments through Dec. 4 on the proposal to extend the Norristown High Speed Line to stops at Henderson Road; two at the King of Prussia Mall, including one that would deposit passengers inside the mall itself; and two more in the King of Prussia business park.

“We’ve tried to really listen to the residents’ concerns,” Smith said, “and find a way to reduce the impacts on those neighborhoods.” She noted that an evening comment session scheduled for Monday could draw residents who are less accommodating about the plan.

Planners expect to present a final route to the authority’s board for approval in early 2018, Smith said.

The project remains a long-term endeavor and far from a certainly. Only $20 million is available for planning and engineering, and SEPTA won’t even begin a serious bid for needed federal funding for another two years, Smith said. If money did become available, the rail could open in 2023.

The route change may make living with the rail easier, Hale said, but that doesn’t mean she and many others in her neighborhood like it.

“It’s definitely not for residents,” she said. “It’s really for the businesses and the workers they’re bringing in.”

About half the speakers at the Monday afternoon session were from area businesses, schools, or commerce organizations, and all favored the rail plan. Among them were representatives from Valley Forge Casino, Drexel University, the Doubletree Hotel, where the meeting was held, and the King of Prussia Mall.

The mall alone employs 8,000 and draws 20 million visitors a year, said Bob Hart, the mall’s general manager. For those who rely on cars or slow SEPTA buses, he said, “the high speed line will make a great alternative.”

King of Prussia, with 4.4 million square feet of retail space and 17 million square feet of business space, is the region’s largest employment center outside Philadelphia and is growing.

Boosters for the plan note it will reduce road congestion, improve air quality, increase real estate value by $540 million to $946 million, and generate $20 million to $22 million in tax revenue from the capital investment, said Nick Frontino of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

Business in King of Prussia is closely tied to Philadelphia, business owners and workers said Monday. A better transportation link with the city is needed.

“We are constantly meeting with the Streets Department, Philadelphia Water Department…” said Anita Nardone, a civil engineer with Dawood engineering. “The amount of time traveling to those meetings is a cost to the company.”

Jeff Karpinski has lived in King of Prussia since 1976 and is excited about the rail’s potential. Traveling to King of Prussia by car is becoming increasingly unpleasant because of the traffic, he said. If King of Prussia wants to keep attracting workers and customers, it needs another transportation option.

“The question now is can we manage the growth, or is the growth going to eat us alive?” Karpinski said. “Right now the growth is eating us up.”

The third public comment session is scheduled for Wednesday at 5 p.m. in the Norristown Municipal Building, 235 E. Airy St., Norristown.