Why SEPTA’s most controversial project is moving ahead

Critics of KOP Rail are unhappy with the direction of the $2 billion extension, but the transit authority is committed to funding the plan.

koprail-illustration
Alex Davis illustration
alexdavis

Last month, SEPTA invested $390 million in the King of Prussia Rail extension. It’s the first big leap for the agency’s most expensive project to date — but among transit advocates, enthusiasm is lower than ever.

Alan Fisher, a local urbanist YouTuber, would never describe himself as anti-transit. This summer, however, he published a video on KOP Rail titled “The Worst Transit Project in America and the Flawed Agency that’s Building it.” It has now been viewed nearly 200,000 times.

“I made [the video] to point out the flaws in the way that SEPTA management prioritizes projects,” Fisher told Billy Penn. “They are not transit centered, they are self centered.”

Unusually, the KOP Rail project is being championed almost exclusively by political and business leaders. Proponents of the $2.08 billion project say it will revolutionize travel to the largest job center in Philly’s suburbs, attracting 9,768 daily rides and $636 million in annual economic activity. Opponents argue there are better transit projects to spend the money on.

How did this suburban rail project create such a bizarre political dynamic?

Plans for a train serving the King of Prussia Mall originally appeared in 1969, and stayed on regional planning documents until 2012, when SEPTA began evaluating different routes for the extension. This renewed push came after King of Prussia’s Business Improvement District was created in 2011. Since then, the district has acted as the loudest and most enthusiastic champion of the project, shepherding it through a decade of community outreach and environmental review. After Leslie Richards, a former Montgomery County commissioner, became SEPTA’s general manager in 2020, environmental review was completed and the Federal Transit Administration greenlit the project for final design.


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SEPTA’s current plan, or “Preferred Alternative,” will build five stations along a four-mile spur off of the existing Norristown High Speed Line, reaching the King of Prussia Mall via the Pennsylvania Turnpike before continuing 1.3 miles east to First Avenue and Moore Road.

A central criticism from transit advocates like Fisher is the process by which the agency selected that route. Before 2016, SEPTA explored building tracks along an open powerline corridor or routing trains down the nearby Dale Secondary railroad. However, both of these paths were flanked by opposed homeowners, some of whom started a “No KOP Rail” petition and Facebook group.

SEPTA also considered constructing a viaduct along Dekalb Pike, a heavily developed arterial. Instead, they opted to construct the viaduct above the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where development is more sparse. Critics like Connor Harris of the Manhattan Institute have pointed to this decision as evidence of a failed planning process. But SEPTA’s chief planning officer, Jody Holton, believes focusing on the expensive sections leads to an unfair analysis. She points out that with only four miles of new track, the project will connect King of Prussia to Norristown, Upper Darby and Center City, 15 miles distant. The only major cost on the rest of the line will be an extra terminal track at 69th Street.

“We’re able to use our existing fleet. We’re able to use our existing maintenance facility to house that fleet,” Holton told Billy Penn. “In a lot of ways, the price tag sounds pretty large. It is not large compared to other projects of the same type of construction.”

In KOP Rail’s 2017 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, SEPTA estimated the Preferred Alternative would cost $1.08 billion. Five years later, this estimate was raised to $2.08 billion. Project leaders have attributed the jump to inflation and unfriendly geology along the route, but critics point to the revision as an omen of future budget overruns.

A train through parking lots

For some critics, the real problem is less about the train than what’s built around it. Or rather, not built.

“All eyes now have to be on the land use,” said Ben She, a local transit advocate and urban planning graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

She’s frustration is largely directed at what he feels was weak negotiation on SEPTA’s part when dealing with Upper Merion Township, where the entirety of the new line will be built. To attract ridership, transit needs destinations within walking distance of stops. But Walk Score, a website that calculates walkability, gives the following scores to the planned station sites:

  • First & Moore -36/100 “Car-Dependent”
  • First & American: — 25/100 “Car-Dependent”
  • Mall Blvd — 47/100 “Car-Dependent”
  • Allendale Road — 58/100 “Somewhat-Walkable”
  • Henderson Road — 63/100 “Somewhat-Walkable”

For comparison, the nearby Norristown Transportation Center scores 87/100, “Very Walkable.”

Thankfully for SEPTA, local policies have changed to be slightly more transit-friendly. Last year, the KOP Business Improvement District built nearly 4,000 feet of off-street bike paths along First Avenue, which Holton sees as an encouraging change. Upper Merion Township has also reconfigured First Avenue for safer pedestrian crossings. In 2014, the township board unanimously voted to legalize housing in King of Prussia across a one-square-mile area north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. While the type of housing permitted is strictly controlled to deter families from moving into the school district, the rezoning has opened a window for walkability around stations, with the explicit goal of supporting KOP Rail.

Simon Property Group, the owner of King of Prussia Mall, has been less cooperative. Together, the mall’s two train stations are predicted to bring in 1,654 daily boardings on the mall’s premises. That’s 38% of the new stations’ total ridership. But despite being the project’s greatest beneficiary by far, Simon will not be contributing to the project financially. Simon also owns the 1.1 million square foot parking lot, situated in the walkshed of the future Mall Blvd station, but has not agreed to develop it.

“You really need to get at least the mall to act as something that isn’t just a mall anymore,” argues Ben She.

The King of Prussia Mall is managed by Simon Property Group

The King of Prussia Mall is managed by Simon Property Group

Ajay Suresh / Wikimedia Commons

For comparison, he points to Northgate Mall in Seattle, situated at the current terminus of Sound Transit’s Line 1 train. This mall is also owned by Simon, and the company is now in the process of converting it into a dense, urban development, working closely with Sound Transit and city planners.

In 2017, Simon did consider a plan to redevelop King of Prussia Mall’s former JCPenney section into mixed use development, but has shown little interest in building around the mall’s two future train stations. Ben She believes SEPTA could still deliver Simon a sort of “ultimatum” to somehow contribute to the project, but he isn’t optimistic.

“I think the state of the transit center in the back of the mall really expresses a lot about how Simon treats transit,” he said in reference to the mall’s current bus station.

King of Prussia Mall, however, is not Northgate. Its annual sales total $1.1 billion and are only increasing. Chief Planning Officer Holton believes getting Simon to build on the parking lots of its most lucrative property is not an easy sell. And she argues the mall would generate enough ridership as is.

“The King of Prussia Mall is very successful,” Holton said. “We have built this plan around it continuing to have internal circulation, to be a traditional mall, but also having stations.”

Ryan Judge, SEPTA’s director of strategic planning and analysis, points to land-use victories at other stations. First & Moore, the spur’s terminal station, will see new transit oriented development, with a report on the project due out this month.

First & Moore’s design has been criticized for its 500-space parking garage, but Judge defended the decision, arguing that it is strategically located to intercept car commuters heading toward Philly.

“[The garage] will take some of the pressure off of other locations where we won’t need parking in the future,” he said

At this point, per Judge, the project’s main obstacle is local funding. To receive money from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts fund, SEPTA needs to find a local match of 40%. The agency is currently in negotiations with Montgomery County to determine its local match, but if local contributions cannot fill the gap, transit advocates worry SEPTA might divert funds from other projects. This fear wasn’t helped in 2021 when SEPTA used $40 million from COVID-19 relief to fund engineering for KOP Rail. Project leaders continue to assure the public that other projects will not take a back seat, pointing to recent progress on “Trolley Modernization” and “Bus Revolution.”

Eternal operating costs

Capital funding is only half the battle. After the extension is built, SEPTA will be permanently committed to funding its operation. This has some people worried.

According to spokesperson Kelly Greene, SEPTA predicts that after the spur is constructed, daily ridership on the Norristown High Speed Line will increase from 11,982 to 21,751, with 53% of these riders shifting from existing bus routes.

As critics have pointed out, this projection assumes dramatically increased service levels on the Norristown High Speed Line after construction. According to simulations prepared by infrastructure planning firm Gannett Fleming, SEPTA will go from running 34,767 train hours a year to 97,036. That means if KOP Rail goes according to plan, SEPTA will end up having to run 179% more service for only 82% more riders. This is because of a concept transit planners call the branching frequency problem.

In order to run trains at 20-minute intervals between all three terminals, trains will have to come every 10 minutes, alternating routes. This is three times the line’s current frequency, and if SEPTA ever becomes unable to maintain these high service levels, there’s no going back.

After the King of Prussia branch is added, reverting to current frequencies would mean hourly direct service between terminals. This would leave only one viable option: converting either Norristown or King of Prussia to a shuttle service, with riders transferring at Hughes Park.

The branching frequency problem as it would manifest along the KOP Rail line

The branching frequency problem as it would manifest along the KOP Rail line

Alex Davis illustration

But SEPTA doesn’t believe operating costs will rise as dramatically as the numbers may suggest. Right now, SEPTA operates two-car trains at busier times, requiring two employees. This capacity is needed at the southern end of the line, but toward Norristown, it’s wasted. Adding ridership in the north will allow SEPTA to operate a more efficient service of primarily one-car trains. The project’s leaders also argue that having buses sit in highway traffic, as they currently do, is a far worse use of SEPTA’s vehicle hours. And most importantly, it’s a bad use of riders’ hours.

“We have to find ways to serve areas like this with transit better than we have in the past,” said Judge. “That demand is there, but there’s no way for us to provide reliable bus service to King of Prussia.”

Jody Holton added, “It’s not fair to put your largest employment center outside the city, in an island surrounded by highways.”

As KOP Rail’s leaders see it, the mall, the sprawl — it’s all there to stay. For anyone outside of a car, King of Prussia is an inhospitable wasteland. But it’s also the Philadelphia region’s third largest employment center, and as the area continues to grow, people will need efficient transit to access its economic resources. Whether or not a $2 billion rail spur is the best way to provide that transit is still up for debate.