The Roosevelt Boulevard subway and the need for ambitious public transit leadership
A subway at Roosevelt Boulevard would serve up to 124,500 passengers daily, diverting more than 80,000 daily car trips and reducing transit travel time between the two bustling Northeast and Center City in half. The massive venture would also create construction jobs and boost economic development along the proposed line.
So why can’t a project do that Almost everyone agrees, would transformative get underway? According to Leslie Richards, CEO of SEPTA, the answer is money.
The SEPTA boss is not wrong. But more than funding, it lacks political imagination.
» READ MORE: The Roosevelt Boulevard subway would change my life | opinion
While the hefty price tag for the new subway line would likely be north of $3 billion, President Joe Biden’s signature bill is a bipartisan infrastructure package that will authorize billions of dollars in capital investment grants — and other major cities have not balked, afterward to ask for their share.
Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Boston and New York have one or more projects pending federal funding. Meanwhile, there is not a single proposed project in Philadelphia on the list.
Originally built as a more suburban enclave for white middle-class families after World War II, The The Northeast has emerged as one of the most diverse and dynamic areas in the country. However, this growing community lacks strong transport links to the rest of the city.
If SEPTA and Philadelphia were to bid for federal funding for New Starts, only the Second Avenue subway expansion in New York City would see higher ridership, which is an important factor in the approval process. A New Starts grant could cover about half of the project’s construction costs.
Another way to support SEPTA’s operating budget would be to secure local support for the agency’s current major project, the King of Prussia rail line. While proponents of the KOP rail have always emphasized the regional benefits of unifying three major employment agencies, this project has significantly lower passenger forecasts than the Boulevard subway. It is also entirely within Montgomery County, which has the second highest per capita income of any county in the state. Additionally, concessions to local not-in-my-backyard opponents resulted in inflated costs.
Given that SEPTA currently has limited funds for capital projects, it is more than reasonable to ask county officials for a contribution.
» READ MORE: Philadelphians have been waiting for the Roosevelt Boulevard subway for over a century | opinion
Funding is also available at the state level. In part because Harrisburg Republicans refused to let him spend, former Gov. Tom Wolf left the state with a record $12 billion surplus. The state certainly has many needs, but given the potential benefits of the project, the boulevard subway should be one of them.
Beyond the one-time funding, what is needed is a consistent regional funding source for SEPTA that will make system growth and improved service more feasible. Unlike cities like Boston or Denver, which regularly expand public transit access, Philadelphia and surrounding counties have never continuously and significantly invested in public transit, relying on Harrisburg to shoulder the burden.
Philadelphia can look back on Denver, which introduced a 0.4% transit sales tax, or Seattle, which created a transit benefit district. While introducing new taxes is never a pleasant experience for politicians, transit referenda have been successful in communities across the country as taxpayers recognize them as a worthy investment. Given the scale of mass transit needs, which include not only capital projects like the Boulevard subway and the KOP rail, but also operational needs like competitive pay for bus drivers and increased cleanliness at stations, this funding is more important than ever.
So yes, there isn’t enough money for the Roosevelt Boulevard subway right now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be. All it takes is for Philadelphia leaders to think boldly.