Extending rail service north of Lansdale under study

Posted: April 28, 2011

Commuter trains could return to upper Montgomery and Bucks Counties if the counties and SEPTA can find $182 million to restore eight miles of the rail service that last operated there in 1981.

A resumption of service between Lansdale and a new station along Route 309 near Telford would attract about 5,200 riders a day from the growing suburban corridor, according to planners who have been studying several options for relieving traffic congestion there.

The latest plan calls for upgrading part of the old Reading Co. Bethlehem Branch and installing electric lines to let SEPTA's electric-powered trains make in 69 minutes the 34-mile trip from a Pennridge station to Suburban Station.

Don't buy a ticket just yet.

Even if funding is forthcoming, construction wouldn't begin for at least five or six years, given the time required for the necessary environmental studies and engineering and design work.

Planners also considered extending train service north from Lansdale as far as Quakertown and Shelly, but decided that electrification of 20 miles of track would be too expensive and that running diesel-powered trains to connect to existing SEPTA service in Lansdale wouldn't attract enough riders.

"Sometimes you need to start a little smaller," said Jeffrey Stiles, vice president of Jacobs Engineering, which performed the $500,000 study. Stiles, project manager Valarie Discafani, county and regional planners, and SEPTA officials met with area residents in Hatfield on Tuesday evening to unveil the proposal.

"We'll be looking for political support on the local and federal level if we're to go forward," Discafani said.

Federal funding could provide as much as half of the cost of restoring service, if the plan is approved by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). That would leave $91 million to be picked up, mostly by the state.

And then there's the estimated $5 million-a-year cost of operating the service. Typically, SEPTA passenger fares cover about half of the costs of rail service, with the rest coming from state and local governments.

"It's a good plan. ... It's too bad it comes at a time when there's no money," said Leo Bagley, assistant director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

Money is scarce at both the state and federal levels for transportation projects.

The last federal transportation-funding plan expired in 2009 and has limped along with periodic short-term extensions ever since. In Harrisburg, Gov. Corbett last week appointed a 35-member panel to come up with ways to fill a $3.5-billion-a-year shortfall in state transportation funding.

Corbett has ruled out raising money by increasing the state gasoline tax or leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator.

The state had hoped to fund much of its transportation needs by placing tolls on I-80, but the U.S. Department of Transportation repeatedly rejected Pennsylvania's application to convert the interstate to a toll road.

The proposed restoration of rail service on the Bethlehem Branch is one of several proposals in the Pennsylvania suburbs to combat ever-increasing traffic congestion on the region's busiest highways.

SEPTA has proposed extending its Route 100 light-rail line from Norristown to King of Prussia, and the transit agency has started work on a three-mile extension of its Media/Elwyn line to Wawa, only to be delayed by funding shortages. Some West Chester residents and business leaders have urged SEPTA to restore service beyond Wawa the additional 10 miles to West Chester, which lost commuter service in 1986.

And Bucks County advocates have asked SEPTA to restore service to Newtown from Fox Chase.

All of the projects are competing for a limited amount of FTA funding, and they're not alone.

"We're all competing with other projects around the country," said Christopher Puchalsky of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

The proposal for the eight-mile extension along the Bethlehem Branch envisions building new stations near the existing Reading stations in Hatfield, Souderton, and Telford, and building a Pennridge station at the rail line's intersection with Route 309 north of Telford. The plan calls for 14 round trips a day, with trains every 30 minutes during rush hours and every two hours during nonpeak times.

"These are places that want train service," said Discafani, who acknowledged the challenge of paying for the service. "Transportation and transit are political issues. . . . We wish there were more money, but we've tried to come up with something that's workable."

The proposal for restored rail service can be seen at www.bucksmontcorridor.com

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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