By Carl Rotenberg, The Times Herald
The benefits for extending SEPTA’s Norristown High Speed Line into Upper Merion got a boost Thursday with the release of a detailed economic analysis of the jobs, residences, commercial real estate and retail growth that would arrive with the five-mile spur line.
While the ultimate route has not yet been picked from the five finalists and funding sources for half of the $1 billion price tag have not been determined, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia (ELGP) and 16 stakeholders in the transportation venture hosted a breakfast event attended by more than 100 officials Thursday to present “Connecting KOP – The Benefits of SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail Project.”
The KOP Rail Coalition has posted the 38-page study at www.connectKOP.com, and SEPTA regularly updates www.kingofprussiarail.com on the progress of the long-range planning process. #KOPRail is the hashtag created by ELGP to advocate for the transit project.
“We are looking at starting (rail) operations eight to 10 years from today,” said Elizabeth Smith, manager of long-range planning at SEPTA. “At the March 2016 public meeting we will release the preliminary recommendation for one local route. Adoption of the locally preferred alternative will come in early 2017.”
our panelists ― administrators from Norristown; an Upper Merion chemical maker; the King of Prussia Mall and a mass transit consultant ― described facets of the potential benefits of the rail project.
”Amen, amen, amen,” said Norristown Municipal Administrator Crandall Jones, a former official of MARTA in Atlanta, Ga. “Access to good jobs and the issue of affordable housing are two themes of our economic development strategy. Our primary objective is to develop around our transit hub in downtown.”
Chris Giangrasso, senior vice president of communications and site services at Arkema Inc., said the rail project would allow some of the 600 employees to use public transportation and satisfy their concern about the environmental impact of daily auto trips.
“Their concern is around accessibility and also environmentally,” Giangrasso said. “A lot are concerned about our environmental impact.”
Robert Hart, the general manager of the King of Prussia Mall, said a rail stop at, or near, the mall would be “enticing” for shoppers.
“We think customers will take advantage of that,” Hart said. “The colleges in Philadelphia will benefit from it.”
Justin Schor, principal of Wells & Associates, drew development parallels between Upper Merion and Tysons Corner, Va.
“Both are edge cities with similar qualities,” Schor said. “They have more employees than residents, and they were planned around freeway interchanges.
“Upper Merion has 8.5 square miles, 20,000 residents, 50,000 jobs, 14 million square feet of office space and 4 million square feet of retail space. Tysons Corner has 4.9 square miles, 19,000 residents, 105,000 jobs, 27 million square feet of office space and 6 million square feet of retail space.”
Schor said the daily commute of 50,000 workers into Upper Merion and a similar commute of 10,000 Upper Merion residents out of the township has created transportation problems. He said the four-stop, $2.9 billion extension of the Washington Metro’s Silver Line into Tysons Corner had a “positive impact on traffic,” reducing peak-hour vehicle trips by 7 to 15 percent on a major traffic artery. It also increased employment and built additional office space and residential housing.
Nick Frontino, the managing director of ELGP, sketched out the economic benefits of the King of Prussia rail extension contained in the “Connecting KOP” analysis.
Frontino said ridership would increase from 66 to 81 percent, the construction would generate $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion in local spending in the five-county region, over 20 years there would be $540 million to $946 million in additional development and employment would increase by 17,000 to 29,000 new employees over the same 20-year period.
Travel times for public transit riders would be reduced — from 80 minutes to 50 minutes for Center City residents and from 38 minutes to 15 minutes for Norristown residents.
“There are significant economic benefits from the project,” said Greg Waks, an Upper Merin supervisor. “They need to do a better job of explaining how it will benefit our residents.”
Members of the supervisors’ board have been attending SEPTA presentations of the five route options for several years.
Waks said he was “dead set” against the two Route 202 route options.
Smith said anywhere from 12 to 15 stakeholders would need to contribute to the $500 million cost after federal New Start funding got the project started.
“There will be no significant monetary contribution from Upper Merion Township for the construction project,” Waks said. “We have other obligations to pay in the township.”
Rochelle Culbreath, a former Norristown council member and SEPTA government affairs manager, said the rail extension from Norristown would give residents “access to jobs” and help “create viable jobs.”
“The high speed line will give access to jobs for working class people to get access to jobs,” she said.
Montgomery County Commissioners’ Vice Chairman Val Arkoosh kicked off the meeting at the Sheraton Valley Forge by praising King of Prussia as “the largest employment center outside of Philadelphia.”
“It will directly connect nearly a dozen colleges to Upper Merion’s 59,000 jobs and provide a more reliable and faster commute,” Arkoosh said. “It will help people get to Norristown, which has two live theaters and new restaurants. It provides vibrancy to our communities.”