Septa On Wrong Track? Lobby Group Faults Schuylkill Line Plan

Posted: March 24, 2000

As decision time draws near for SEPTA and the Schuylkill Valley Metro project, a group that lobbies for rail passengers is stepping up its criticism of the transit agency's plans.

A strongly worded report released by the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers at yesterday's monthly SEPTA board meeting accuses the transit agency's staff of distorting facts and figures in favor of a rail system the group opposes.

"It is amazing the frequency at which SEPTA misguidedly marches in the exact opposite direction from all other transit operators in the United States," read the report, distributed to SEPTA's 15 board members.

SEPTA is considering six options for the proposed 62-mile rail line linking Philadelphia to Reading, including light rail, like a trolley, or heavy rail, like SEPTA's commuter trains.

DVARP members worry SEPTA, which will narrow the field to three options for public hearings next month, favors the light rail alternative.

DVARP prefers a "dual-mode" system, with heavy rail commuter trains pulled by diesel locomotives until they reach the Center City Commuter Tunnel, where the cars would be pulled by electric propulsion.

DVARP's report says it appears SEPTA's staff has been "intellectually dishonest" when designing the light rail alternative.

The group suggests that could lead to the same types of problems that afflicted SEPTA's Norristown High Speed Line, detailed in a critical management audit in March, 1997

"DVARP requests that the SEPTA board put a halt to these shenanigans immediately, before any more money is wasted on entertaining these light rail. . .fantasies," the report says.

DVARP president Don Nigro said the harsh wording for the report - entitled "A Contrast in Models: Wild Optimism for Light Rail Vs. Stark Conservatism for Commuter (heavy) Rail" - was necessary to get his group's point across to SEPTA's board.

He said SEPTA's board does not seem set on one alternative.

SEPTA's staff, Nigro said, favors light rail because it wants to build its own rail tracks and avoid the complex issue of sharing the existing railways with Norfolk-Southern railroad, as the heavy rail alternative requires.

"They don't want to be bothered with sharing infrastructure with Norfolk-Southern," Nigro said. "It's their system. They're free to mess it up."

SEPTA General Manager Jack Leary yesterday denied a preference exists in his agency for the light rail alternative. Each is open for scrutiny, he said.

"It's a very open subject," Leary said. "You can always debate all of the facts and figures and statistics."

DVARP's report suggested SEPTA have its staff or a new consultant "draw up a realistic budget and implementation plan." Leary said SEPTA's consultant, Urban Engineers Inc. - which is being paid $4.2 million to study project - has already done that. Last month, DVARP distributed to SEPTA's board a cost comparison study the group conducted on the rail alternatives. The study showed SEPTA's alternatives are probably overpriced compared to similar projects around the country, Nigro said.

SEPTA is to hold three public hearings - April 11, 12, and 13 - in the region and could select one of the rail alternatives at its April 27 board meeting.

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