King of Prussia rail: Where will it go?

Two of the proposed trunks would follow the Pennsylvania Turnpike for part of the trip. This rendering shows the "Route 202" trunk, which briefly follows the Turnpike south, away from the mall, before turning onto DeKalb Pike. (Courtesy of SEPTA)

As SEPTA moves further down the line in planning a rail extension to King of Prussia, there are a few things we know - and many more that we don't.

Among the decisions so far: It will be a spur off the Norristown High-Speed Rail Line. The entire five-mile route will be on an elevated concrete track. It will stop at the King of Prussia Mall, end at the Valley Forge Casino and Convention Center, and include two to four stops along the way.

But transit planners, township officials, and business groups are still studying some of the most crucial details, including which of five proposed routes would get the most ridership, how much each route would cost, and how each would affect noise, traffic, and other environmental conditions.

With planning well underway and strong potential for federal funding, SEPTA says the line could be running by 2023.

Over the next year, the transit agency will compile answers to those questions and decide on a route. Until then, homeowners, riders, and officials are teasing out the pros and cons of each option.

 

The trunks

 

The five routes break down into three trunks from Bridgeport to the mall, and two branches from the mall to the casino.

The strongest responses so far - mostly in opposition - have been directed at the Route 202 trunk, which would run down the median of DeKalb Pike.

"No matter how they sugarcoat it, I can't see that happening on 202," said a King of Prussia resident at the March 16 public hearing. The road is so congested with cars, she said, that there is no room to bring in construction equipment.

A man who lives in the Pinecrest neighborhood, who did not want to give his name, said the 202 route looked the most direct and offered the most potential stops for riders.

"The best bang for the buck seems to be 202, but it might be an eyesore," he said.

Several members of the Upper Merion Board of Supervisors have also opposed the 202 trunk. Chairman Greg Philips said that he would not rule it out before seeing cost and ridership data, but that he had concerns about how it would change the look and feel of the retail corridor.

"Route 202 already effectively splits our township in half, and an elevated track down the middle would reinforce that split," Philips said, comparing it to Columbus Boulevard, which has become a physical and conceptual barrier cutting off the Delaware River waterfront from the rest of Center City.

Eric Goldstein, executive director of the King of Prussia Business Improvement District, said he expected 202 would offer a "fractional increase" in ridership, but not enough to justify the disruptions it would create for homeowners, businesses, and traffic, particularly during the three to four years it would take to build the line.

The two other trunks would be more tucked away, running along the south edge of the Pennsylvania Turnpike or above a greenbelt south of Route 202 that carries Peco's electrical lines.

There is "a pocket of opposition" to the Peco route from some homeowners whose backyards would abut the rail line, said Elizabeth A. Smith, SEPTA's project manager. But all three of the trunks, at one point or another, would run directly adjacent to existing houses.

 

The branches

 

The Peco trunk would work only with the First Avenue branch, cutting out the option of stops at the new Children's Hospital or the mixed-use Village at Valley Forge complex now under construction.

Goldstein said he was less concerned about the Village than the business park on First Avenue, which has about 20,000 workers and over the next decade is to be the centerpiece of a new multi-use development district.

A rail stop in the middle of that district would make it easier to sell to professionals and young families that want to work and live in the area without a car, Goldstein said.

The plans for that district already included removing a lane of traffic and adding left-turn lanes to slow down the cars and make the district more pedestrian-friendly. Concrete columns for a rail line would fit easily into that center lane, Goldstein said.

"The project team felt so strongly that this was a good refinement, that we added a route in," Smith said. "We wanted all three of our trunks to have this option as a branch."

 

Concerns remain

 

While some pros and cons have emerged, Goldstein and others said it was impossible to rule out any of the routes yet.

"It's a very even distribution at this point," because each route accomplishes the task at hand, he said. "There are very few things that are missing in King of Prussia. Public transportation is one of them."

Homeowners in the area - many of whom say they don't expect to use the train - said noise and traffic were their biggest immediate concerns.

Those will be addressed in more detail at the end of this year, when SEPTA releases a draft environmental impact statement. Smith said people should continue voicing any questions and concerns to make sure planners overlook nothing as they prepare that report.

The project's cost was estimated at $500 million, but Smith said updated figures would not be available until the end of 2015.

Two more public workshops are scheduled Wednesday, at 4 and 6:30 p.m., at the DoubleTree Hotel, 301 W. DeKalb Pike in King of Prussia. Comments can also be submitted online at www.kingofprussiarail.com.

 


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