Consultant sought to improve transit along the developing Philly waterfront

Plans for a major transit upgrade along the Delaware River waterfront have been floating around for more than a decade at least.

That could involve a trolley or light rail line to accompany hoped-for development to reshape the waterfront. But SEPTA is pursuing a $1 billion plan to modernize its existing trolley fleet, and the current funding formula makes it unlikely any additional expansion will happen in the next few years.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC) is looking to improve transit along the river sooner than that. With $200,000 from the William Penn Foundation, it is seeking a consultant to explore how to boost existing transit options to the waterfront, and set the stage so a more significant investment in rail could become a reality.

“With the William Penn grant, we wanted to really focus on some immediate improvements that we can do to get people up and down the waterfront and those crosstown connections, because that hadn’t really happened yet,” said Karen Thompson, DRWC director of planning.

The area under consideration runs from Oregon Avenue to Allegheny Avenue. SEPTA’s Route 25 bus runs on Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard, and more than 10 other bus routes intersect with or come near those roads.

The consultant’s review, Thompson said, would be due in late 2018, and would evaluate ways to improve transit use. Possibilities include new or improved shelters, more frequent service, and a marketing campaign to make transit options more visible. Other agencies participating in the review include PennDot, the Delaware River Port Authority, city government, and SEPTA.

“SEPTA is looking at increasing the span and frequency of service to better reflect the needs of the retail and recreational destinations at the waterfront,” said spokesman Andrew Busch. SEPTA is considering creating uniform service throughout work days and weekends, rather than schedules that favor traditional rush hours, he added.

The waterfront was once a virtual dead zone, in part due to I-95’s cutting off easy pedestrian access, but it has become more of a destination in the last five years. The Spruce Street Harbor Park at Penn’s Landing attracts about 750,000 people a season, the DRWC reported. The nearby Winterfest attracts up to 350,000 from November to March.

More changes could be coming, including a proposed cap over I-95 from Chestnut to Walnut Streets. The DRWC’s 26-year master plan, released in 2011, envisions apartments, restaurants, and public spaces along the elbow in the Delaware River that Philadelphia hugs.

The relatively recent phenomenon of large crowds coming to the waterfront has created questions the DRWC hopes the review will answer. How people are choosing to travel to the waterfront and where they are coming from are key pieces of information to formulate a transit plan, Thompson said.

A major investment in transit along the corridor requires evidence of high population and employment density, high ridership on existing routes, and a transit-friendly geography.

“Those aren’t really available at the moment” along Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard, said Betsy Mastaglio, manager of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s office of transit, bicycle, and pedestrian planning.

DRWC officials hope the review can recommend ways to change that.

“I think we want to wrap our heads around this a little more,” Thompson said. “Take the master plan’s bigger ideas to that next step.”

The DRWC is hosting an open house Wednesday for firms interested in conducting the review. It expects to pick a contractor by April 27.