Archive: Subway riders get shortchanged at 30th St. Station

This article was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 7, 2003 by architecture critic Inga Saffron.

With no small amount of ceremony, Amtrak and a developer broke ground last month on a $50 million, state-funded parking garage next to 30th Street Station. When the structure opens next year, drivers will be able to saunter directly from the garage to the station via a sun-dappled sky bridge, thanks to a $3 million federal transportation grant.

Life isn't quite so convenient for the users of SEPTA's Market -Frankford Line. For nearly two decades, the tunnel connection between the station and the 30th Street subway stop has been shut tight - so tight that Amtrak covered the stairwells and rented the space above them to a pub, Auntie Anne's pretzels, and a Smoothie King. Subway riders must walk out of the station and dash across an access road with traffic resembling the Indy 500 to reach their destination.

If you're looking for an example of the institutionalized inequity in the funding of public transit and our car culture, go no further. Our tax dollars are used to subsidize and encourage private automobile use, while the local transit system is left to fend for itself.

Not that SEPTA appears outraged about the slight. The regional transit agency can't quite recall why the tunnel was closed, although spokesman Jim Whitaker said safety concerns were probably a factor. In 2001, SEPTA gingerly raised the idea of reopening the passageway with Amtrak, but then Sept. 11 happened and the agency decided not to push the issue. Little did the terrorists know that their attack would become the universal excuse for all bureaucratic inertia.

Amtrak, meanwhile, is pleased as can be with the progress on the garage, which is being paid for with $50 million in tax-exempt bonds issued by the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority.

Because the troubled national railroad has staked its future on the success of its high-priced Northeast Corridor trains, it wants to make it more convenient for its affluent riders to use its stations. The nine-story, 1,525-car garage will do that by easing the parking crunch around 30th Street Station . The garage also will use land more efficiently than the existing surface lots and could lead to the construction of an office tower next to the station

An issue of parity

Fair enough. Amtrak needs to serve its market to survive. It would be nice if Amtrak riders didn't add to the traffic jams and instead took SEPTA to and from 30th Street Station , which is the hub of one of the country's best transit networks. And after all, conserving gas is now patriotic. But passengers paying the $204 round-trip fare on the Acela Express to New York don't seem to mind laying out another $20 for parking, probably because many are on corporate expense accounts.

The issue here is parity. If drivers have a direct connection to the train station, so should subway riders. Indeed, it's in Amtrak's best interest to open that passage and promote all forms of mass transit.

When the once-mighty Pennsylvania Railroad - one of Amtrak's predecessors - hired Daniel Burnham's architectural firm to build 30th Street Station in 1929, it requested an underground passage to the subway for its customers' convenience, even though the subway was owned by a different company. The Market -Frankford line is now SEPTA's best-used, with 100,000 riders a day, and deserves to be integrated fully into the region's transit network again.

Going "intermodal"

Today, planners get misty-eyed when they talk about such "intermodal" connections because, like Amtrak's garage, they help to make mass transit more competitive - which makes cities more competitive. The power of transit is one reason that New York officials are lobbying hard for an intermodal station under ground zero, which would connect all Manhattan's subway lines, the New Jersey PATH trains, regional buses, and new airport trains.

That underground station will probably have lots of connecting tunnels similar to the one at 30th Street, but you can bet that New York officials will find ways to keep them open and safe. SEPTA and Amtrak officials could do the same here with police patrols, security cameras and emergency intercoms. Better yet, they could rent space cheaply in the tunnel to newsstands, coffee shops, shoe-shine stands, or other businesses that would make people feel safe.

Amtrak won federal financing for its garage sky bridge partly because it argued that the Arch Street crossing is unsafe, with motorists whipping around the train station. But when the subway tunnel was deemed unsafe, riders lost a convenience.

Most people can probably guess why. SEPTA's subway riders don't pay $102 for a 90-mile trip. But just because Amtrak's prices keep the masses from using its trains doesn't mean it should make keep SEPTA riders from using theirs.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.