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Parallel Tracks

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Paoli Business & Professional Association president Marie Thibault in the current Paoli train station (Photo by Jared Castaldi)In the beginning, there was a village. One boisterous St. Patrick’s Day, the burghers at Joshua Evans’ 18th-century tavern launched a series of toasts to Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli, who’d fashioned independence and democracy for his island republic. Both tavern and village now had an inspired name, and from the Revolutionary War right on through the Main Line’s creation along the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Paoli’s character remained true to its heritage.

The speed of modern life, however, tends to leave villages behind, forcing the Paolis of the world to court development as a means of preserving their profile. So while building a better train station may seem like little more than a straightforward perk for rail travelers, the implications for Paoli—and the Main Line in general—go well beyond the loading platform. Advocates believe that a retooled station, newly developed adjacent lots and upgraded surrounding infrastructure will benefit the railroads, local businesses and residents, preferably sometime before the next millennium.

For sure, the wheels have been turning slowly on the Paoli Transportation Center, an idea that was first surfaced back in the early 1990s. But with SEPTA, Amtrak, PennDOT, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), Chester County, and Tredyffrin and Willistown townships all involved, the project’s execution is no simple matter. It’s not something that can be built in isolation. Revamped roads and bridges, and mixed-use development are equal partners in the complex plan.

“It’s one of the most important transit projects in the state,” says Tredyffrin Supervisor John DiBuonaventuro, who, some 16 years later, is still calling it a work in progress.

If progress has been grudging, there are promising signs of acceleration of late. Some federal money has been allocated for road studies and construction of the station. Tredyffrin and Willistown have revised ordinances to achieve more consistency, and both are zeroing in on the necessary infrastructure changes and costs. “The two townships understand what the issues are,” says Norm MacQueen, chairman of the Willistown Supervisors. “Townships and residents are now on the same page.”

Simply put, the project must connect layers of government, shared jurisdictions and competing interests. SEPTA needs expanded parking and bus drop-off facilities to handle its growing rail ridership. Increased traffic necessitates road and bridge improvements to alleviate bottlenecks. The station property, which overlaps the two townships, falls on parcels owned by SEPTA and Amtrak.

Nobody in the equation is exactly flush with cash, so development of the property’s unused portion is the best—and perhaps only—way to pay the freight, as it widens the local tax base and requires (per federal funding) the developer to cover a share of the roadwork.

In short, the new station can’t be built until development plans are approved by the townships, and the plans cannot be completed until the infrastructure tab is determined and a private developer is aboard. (As of November, Amtrak was in negotiations with a developer.)
 

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Funding sources, too, await these actions. Though some money is in the pipeline, where it winds up—and how much more follows—are not guaranteed. Last year, DVRPC (which covers the five-county area) authorized $4.3 million in federal highway funds for its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), including $1.3 million to study the feasibility of replacing the Amtrak overpass and adding traffic lanes at the intersection of routes 252 and 30. The balance of the money is for the evaluation of other logjam spots near the station, notably the North Valley Road bridge that runs through it, the “Y” formed by Route 30 and Paoli Pike, and 30 at Paoli Memorial Hospital. Each spot challenges the nerves of rush-hour motorists, and must be altered in the face of increased SEPTA traffic and new development that would take place on Amtrak-owned land west of the Valley Road bridge.

“Amtrak wants to see private development working hand-in-hand with public money,” says state Congressman Jim Gerlach, who represents Tredyffrin and was instrumental in obtaining the above monies, plus another $500,000 in “starter” funds, from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for construction of the Paoli Transportation Center. That project alone accounts for $40 million of SEPTA’s capital budget through 2020, about a quarter of which will pay for materials, engineering and design once things are underway, according to the agency. The FTA and PennDOT likely will provide most of the funding.

To pay for road improvements, the TIP money slotted so far is just the tip of the iceberg. Tredyffrin and Willistown are vying for the bigger dollars available in this year’s Federal Highway Reauthorization money, a pot Congress refills every five years. To secure the already allocated money—insufficient to fully fund even the pre-construction work—and compete for sizable future funds, the townships have been deadline-driven.

“By the end of ’08, we have to know our needed infrastructure changes and costs,” DiBuonaventuro said last November.

For the Paoli station itself, change can’t come too soon. The one-story, flat-roofed main structure is cramped, shabby and outdated. Across the tracks, the outbound platform is an eyesore of corroded iron, scarred brick and paint-stripped wood.

In the metered parking lot south of the tracks, all spaces are occupied as buses light in their narrow zones—the 205 en route to Main Line Industrial Park, the 206 ticketed for Great Valley Corporate Center, and additional feeder lines 92, 105 and 204. Local transit vans weave through to make their stops. An Amtrak crane and crew repair a staircase that rises from the lot to the elevated Valley Road bridge, which is as steep as a small mountain, a walkway on one side only.

SEPTA construction plans include a new station house on the north side of the tracks west of Valley Road, high-level platforms, bus facilities, a 1,200-space parking structure, reconfigured access roads, and a bevy of new sidewalks, crosswalks and concourses. In addition to SEPTA R5 commuters bound for Philadelphia, Paoli station serves Amtrak trains headed west as far as Chicago and east to 30th Street to connect to Washington or New York. It’s a transit hub in search of hub-like capacity and amenities—and its average daily ridership of about 1,400 round-trip passengers surely would spike if improvements go as planned.

But without additional development, station improvements remain on the drawing board. SEPTA indicates that the project can’t begin until Amtrak approves a developer. The transit agencies are joined at the hip on this one, as are the business and residential communities.
 

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“It’s the scale of the project that concerns us,” says Willistown resident Betsy Allinson, who lives near the station and adds that several neighbors share her viewpoint. “The concept has been sold to us as a ‘village center.’ We feel that we already live in a village. A five-story parking garage, for example, will create a 69th Street atmosphere.”

In addition to an above-ground parking structure, development plans for the Amtrak land west of the bridge and south of the permit parking lot probably will include a mix of townhouse, office and retail construction. Declared a Superfund site in the early 1990s by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to PCB contamination, the tract was restored jointly by SEPTA and Amtrak during more than a decade of work to qualify for commercial development. Additional cleanup could clear it for residential development.

Environmental safety is on the minds of nearby residents, but they may be more leery of traffic congestion in the neighborhood. “I’m worried about the spillover from Route 30 onto side roads,” says Allinson. “Given that we are sitting just down the road from Uptown Worthington [a 100-acre development under construction in Malvern], I don’t see the infrastructure to support increased traffic.”

Retaining Paoli’s essence is another challenge. “The idea is to allow for some additional development and keep the village character,” says longtime Tredyffrin Supervisor Judy DiFilippo.

DiFilippo was at her post in the early ’90s, when businesses in the shadow of the station complained that commuters were taking customer parking spaces. Soon the townships, Chester County Planning Commission and DVRPC were assessing the viability of improving the station property. A host of local studies and one updated master plan later, Paoli Transportation Center has reemerged as the county’s No. 1 transportation project.

Today’s business owners see it as a boon to the overall community—not to mention their bottom lines. “It’ll increase property values,” says Jeff Miller, of TJ’s Everyday restaurant in the Paoli Village Shoppes. “Right now we’re a drive-thru.”

Miller’s landlord, Judy DiSerafino Huey, says the project will make Paoli “a more walkable, livable town versus a stop on the local.”

With an accent on aesthetics, they hope. “There’s the possibility of including a ‘village green’ on the property,” says Marie Thibault, president of the Paoli Business & Professional Association. “That will bring people together—make it more community-oriented.”

The Paoli Transportation Center would be the latest example of what Willistown’s MacQueen calls “transit-directed development,” the m.o. that built the Main Line as the railroad cut its groove west. Now, though, government bears much of the financial load for such projects, and public dollars are under siege. The further a project is pushed back, the more expensive it becomes. But the cost of doing nothing is often greater.

“We have to balance growth with quality of life,” says state Congressman Joe Sestak, who represents Willistown and advocates strengthening public transportation. “We want proper development [for Paoli station]—to do it wisely and well.”

And it must be done cost-effectively—a tall order in this economically tumultuous environment. Amid the shops on Lancaster Pike at the southern boundary of Paoli station, the fortress-like façade of the former Paoli Bank & Trust Company (erected in 1928) stands guard. Near the entrance is the purple-and-green sign of Wachovia, a bank recently absorbed by Citigroup.

Sign of the times.
 

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