The SEPTA Board of Directors on Thursday will consider a series of contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for the construction of a new parking garage at the Conshohocken train station.
This decision comes only a few weeks after the board paused the project in light of its massive increase in budget, which has risen from $10 million in 2019 to nearly $50 million today. SEPTA received significant local praise for this move, from local transit activists and others who recognize expensive park and rides are a poor strategy for building transit ridership.
In fact, the proposed Conshohocken garage, where each and every parking spot would end up costing the agency well over $100,000, has such boondoggle potential it’s received national attention.
Fortunately, there is a viable alternative. Last week SEPTA officials reported they’ve had productive conversations with several developers about the possibility of building a mixed-use project at the site, and are currently working with Borough of Conshohocken officials on laying out an alternative path forward.
It would seem the interest has at least partially alleviated concerns about the feasibility of overcoming flooding for this valuable land — so near to a train station with direct service to Center City. This breakthrough represents the possibility of achieving so much more at this site; it would be a shame to foreclose that possibility just because procurement officials are eager to wrap up this multi-year project.
Recent revelations have only confirmed the board’s concerns about spending their very limited budget on a massive piece of car infrastructure. It’s more important to get this project right than rushing ahead, even if that means potentially upsetting some contractors eager to profit from SEPTA’s largess.
One of the smartest moves General Manager Leslie Richards made upon assuming her current position was pausing planning and spending on additional parking infrastructure at SEPTA’s Regional Rail stations. SEPTA’s commuter rail lines have had the weakest ridership recovery of any modes, and in fact the system’s existing parking spots are so severely under-utilized SEPTA is literally giving away parking, with no plans of reinstituting parking fees anytime soon.
We shouldn’t be surprised that a recent DIY audit found “hundreds of empty parking spaces within short walking distance of Conshohocken’s train station.”
Considering that 42% of Regional Rail riders say they don’t drive to the train, and that this station sees an average of around 450 riders total, it’s no wonder SEPTA officials admitted (only last week) that the 528-space parking garage would have too much parking.
With SEPTA’s maintenance backlog up to $5.1 billion and the agency facing a fiscal cliff as pandemic relief funds are exhausted, it simply doesn’t make sense to spend money on a parking garage that would rarely come close to filling up, largely be used by non-SEPTA riders, and induce even more congestion near the station by encouraging current riders to start driving to the station.
With so many people working from home, it’s more clear than ever that SEPTA’s status quo commuter rail operating model is broken.
Several years ago SEPTA officials recognized a new approach would be necessary to regain ridership in this post-pandemic environment and they begun the Reimagining Regional Rail project to move the system beyond simply transporting white collar commuters to office buildings in Center City into a lifestyle network of frequent, all-day, and all-week services that connects people to a range of destinations across the region.
Building this garage would be a step backwards.
This board should have the courage to admit that what may have made sense before COVID and when this project had a significantly smaller budget doesn’t necessarily make sense now. Instead the agency should work with its funding partners to shift funds to more fruitful projects, just like it did after canceling the KOP Rail project.
Conshohocken has attracted lots of residential investment over the last few years because folks are eager to live in walkable communities with transit connections.
SEPTA and the Borough of Conshohocken should work together to grow ridership through improving local connectivity to the train station, not by doubling down on the failed commuter rail strategies of the last century.