On the Main Line, rail lines have always traveled through valuable real estate, utterly defining our region. So why wouldn’t they do the same with SEPTA’s proposed King of Prussia Rail Project?
“At worst, it won’t have any impact—but it won’t hurt,” says Eric Goldstein, founding executive director of the King of Prussia District. “Now, the jobs are in the suburbs, and access is critical to keep pace.”
Goldstein’s civic organization is a partner in the project, which would connect Philadelphia to King of Prussia and promises to create jobs and alleviate traffic. SEPTA’s recommended route would be a five-mile elevated rail spur from the Norristown High Speed Line. It would use right-of-way land occupied by PECO, then shadow the Pennsylvania Turnpike and follow First Avenue into the King of Prussia business park.
The projected $1.1 billion extension would include five stops: Henderson Road, with vehicle parking; two at the King of Prussia Mall; and two in the business park, currently poised for mixed-use redevelopment. “I could walk to the train [from home] in three minutes,” says Debbie Collins, who lives in King of Prussia and works as a nanny on the Main Line. “It also would be nice to take a train to the Plaza and not worry about parking.”
A study from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia projected that, over 20 years, rail service could bring $540 million to $946 million in real-estate value, generate 1,000 or more annual jobs, and save millions of hours in commuting. When completed—perhaps by 2023—it’s estimated that the spur would transport 8,500 passengers daily. “It’s a way to make sure King of Prussia does not fall behind in a changing demographic preference,” Goldstein says. “There’s nothing stagnant here, and many live here because they like its activity.”
There is opposition, however. The social-media effort NoKOPRail has led to petitions and neighborhood resistance. Grievances include SEPTA’s poor communication, the rail’s proximity to backyards, and doubts that the extension will get its predicted use, especially by Upper Merion Township residents. There’s also the uncertainty over funding—though SEPTA will seek New Starts grant money in 2018 from the Federal Transit Administration to pay half the costs—along with questions about Upper Merion’s sinkhole history.
NoKOPRail organizer Dan Cowhey calls the project a fad that SEPTA’s cashing in on. “We are not anti-transit,” he says. “We’ve proposed [resident-convenient] alternate ideas that have fallen on deaf ears. Assuming car riders become train riders, KOP will still have a traffic issue with cars coming in to get to these stops. Statistically, it’s bus riders who become train riders, so they’re just redistributing ridership.”
Also concerning, Cowhey says, is how the project is coming off as a done deal, and how SEPTA didn’t address the affected residential area until the Valley Forge Homes neighborhood demanded it. “It’s an electric train, not a diesel engine that hums, but it would be in their backyards, so I can understand their concerns,” says Goldstein, who lives in Moorestown, N.J.
Liz Smith, SEPTA’s manager of long-range planning, says the transit authority continues to meet with stakeholders, including residents, and is lining up more open meetings this fall. Fresh feedback could change the plan; a draft environmental-impact statement is targeted for December completion. SEPTA has hosted backyard visits, and Smith says this project has had more outreach than most. “It’s unique to the region [by magnitude and location], so it warranted a different approach,” she says.
Today, traffic backups on I-76 going east and west between King of Prussia and the city are almost equal. And some of SEPTA’s worst-
performing bus routes run from the Philly to KOP on the Schuylkill Expressway. “[The rail project] offers a more efficient ride,” Smith says.
One SEPTA survey found that 67 percent of almost 1,000 respondents—a third of whom lived in Upper Merion—supported the extension. Fifty-three percent said they’d use it. Another study projected that 56 percent of riders would come from Montgomery County.
At last count, NoKOPRail’s online petition had over 700 signatures, matching the number on a paper petition. “At best, this shows that this train is mainly supported by nonresidents and businesses,” Cowhey says.
Michael Shaw, a local historian and author of The Railroads of King of Prussia, PA: The Past Leads to the Future, says the rail project lends prestige to an already “hip” place. “King of Prussia has come a long way from the rural village that made up most of its lifespan,” he says, suggesting that the railroads have been a constant in the greater King of Prussia area since 1838. “With this project, passenger service and its transportation benefits will come full circle.”
Smith notes that King of Prussia is the region’s third-largest employer, behind Center City and University City. Rail service would link the three. And the spur would be an extension of the Norristown High Speed Line, which has Main Line stops. “The Main Line is a big beneficiary of this extension—and not only for employment,” says Smith. “Can you imagine doing your holiday shopping and not having to find a parking space at the mall?”