Officials working to restore rail passenger service to Philly Zoo

Posted: April 03, 2013

After 100 years of watching trains pass without stopping, Philadelphia Zoo officials are trying to restore passenger rail service to the zoo.

A new study proposes a SEPTA station at 34th Street and Mantua Avenue, a short walk from the zoo's south entrance.

Although the zoo was built on its West Philadelphia site in 1874 partly because of handy rail access, the original Zoological Garden station at 34th Street and Girard Avenue closed in 1902, a victim of Pennsylvania Railroad expansion.

Now, congested highway access and limited parking have convinced zoo leaders that a new train station would increase attendance and ease traffic.

Kenneth Woodson, the zoo's vice president of community and government affairs, said the zoo would "pursue aggressively" a new train station.

A new station, with rail platforms, elevators and stairways, and requisite environmental work and track relocation, could cost about $60 million, said architect Robert P. Thomas, an author of the new rail feasibility study for the zoo.

Thomas and other planners also looked at putting the train station by the zoo's main entrance on 34th and Girard, where the original station was. But that could cost about $200 million because of the challenges of trying to build amid the converging Amtrak and SEPTA rail lines there, he said.

SEPTA officials say they have no money for a zoo station, so financing would have to come from the federal government.

In the meantime, zoo officials are taking more immediate steps in a $24 million effort to ease congestion and improve parking.

On Friday, they will open a four-story parking garage with spaces for 683 vehicles. New traffic signals, bus pull-off areas, and pedestrian crosswalks have been installed to make the crowded zoo area more accessible, Woodson said.

But he acknowledged that "we could never build enough parking to handle our biggest traffic days."

Currently, more than 80 percent of zoo visitors arrive by car or school bus. Most of the rest come on the SEPTA Route 38 bus or Route 15 trolley, or on the seasonal PHLASH shuttle managed by the Independence Visitor Center.

With attendance last year down by more than 85,000 visitors from 2009's nearly 1,300,000, zoo officials see a revival of train service as a way to attract regional residents who don't want to fight traffic or parking headaches. Fewer visitors' cars parked on adjacent streets would also improve the zoo's sometimes-testy relations with its neighbors.

Train service would also be a boon to residents in nearby Parkside, Mantua, Brewerytown and Powelton, who could walk to the station, Thomas said.

As envisioned by the planners, a zoo station at 34th and Mantua would have platforms for trains operating on the Paoli/Thorndale, Trenton, Chestnut Hill West, and Cynwyd lines.

Passengers on other SEPTA, Amtrak, or NJ Transit trains could connect to zoo trains at Center City stations.

"If commuters could, in one or two stops, get to the zoo, that would help a lot," said Woodson.

He said "patience and a long-term strategy," not to mention tens of millions of dollars, will be necessary to advance the proposal for a train station.

Zoo officials, who have met with representatives of SEPTA, Amtrak, and NJ Transit, will now work with SEPTA's engineering and planning staffs and begin the hunt for federal funding.


Zoo Attendance

2012........ 1,208,386

2011........ 1,200,338

2010........ 1,265,229

2009.........1,293,166

2008........ 1,165,585

2007........ 1,130,300

2006........ 1,243,790

2005........ 1,088,814

2004........ 1,162,052

2003........ 1,146,758

2002........ 1,086,238

Source: Philadelphia Zoo


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

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