Region prepares for tough commute as transit strike looms

Commuters board a Regional Rail train at 30th Street Station. The possibility of a strike has workers and employers seeking alternate arrangements.
Commuters board a Regional Rail train at 30th Street Station. The possibility of a strike has workers and employers seeking alternate arrangements. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 15, 2014

With a growing prospect of a SEPTA Regional Rail strike, commuters and employers are scrambling to make other plans for getting to work.

About 60,000 people in the region make 126,000 train trips a day, on average. Many of those riders are likely to take cars onto already crowded rush-hour highways or squeeze aboard packed buses and subways.

Some major Center City employers are encouraging employees to work flexible hours or from home, if their jobs permit.

Carpooling, employer shuttle buses from distant parking lots, and temporary work from remote office branches are other stopgap plans.

Amanda Stokes, 23, of Abington, said she takes the train every day to get to her job at the Anthropologie clothing store in Center City.

Her shift starts at 10 a.m. Saturday, so if the trains are not running, she said, "I don't know, I guess I'll have to figure out a ride. There's no other way from the suburbs all the way up here."

That means asking a friend or a relative, since "I don't even have a license myself," Stokes said. "I lived in the city for years, so I didn't need it."

Big health-care organizations in Philadelphia, such as Jefferson Health System, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, lack the option of allowing employees to work at home. Patients need to be attended at bedside.

The health systems are encouraging lots of carpooling and, in some cases, making arrangements for additional parking.

Penn has "plans in place for extra car commuters, car pooling, and shuttle buses for remote parking lots," spokeswoman Susan Phillip said.

At Dechert L.L.P., one of the city's largest law firms, some employees have been given laptops to work from home, and others will switch to flexible hours to avoid peak travel times, spokeswoman Beth Huffman said. Employees will be rewarded for carpooling with parking reimbursements, she said.

At Comcast, whose Center City office tower was built above Suburban Station to make rail commuting easy, employees are being encouraged "to work with their managers on alternative arrangements in the event a strike occurs," spokesman John Demming said Friday.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation maintains 14 park-and-ride lots in Southeastern Pennsylvania (locations at www.pacommutes.com) for commuters, and will only allow maintenance and cleaning crews to close lanes between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to ease rush-hour jams, said spokesman Eugene Blaum.

PennDot district traffic engineer Lou Belmonte encouraged motorists to check traffic conditions by calling 511 or visiting www.511PA.com on the Web or 511PAPhilly on Twitter.

"That's a good resource for people used to taking transit who now have to switch," Belmonte said.

SEPTA said it planned to increase bus, subway, trolley, and Norristown High-Speed Line service during the off-peak period between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. But during rush hours, the transit system is already at peak capacity, spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.

Lots at Regional Rail stations will offer free parking.

Joseph Bellinger, 32, of Upper Darby, said Friday he was not looking forward to crowded platforms and cars on the Norristown High-Speed Line if there is a Regional Rail strike, as displaced rail commuters are likely to use the line.

"It is definitely going to affect me coming home," he said while waiting at the Gulph Mills station. Bellinger, who works for an engineering company in Conshohocken, takes buses and the Norristown line to work and was worried his routine would be disrupted. "I might have to get the early train to be safe."

At the Villanova station, Lucia Herrmann, 20, of Bryn Mawr, was waiting to catch a train on her way to visit friends in New York City. She planned to return Sunday night, but had no idea how she would get home from Philadelphia.

"I don't want to take a cab," she said before jumping on the inbound train.

Katie Bern, 23, of Philadelphia, a student at Villanova University, uses Regional Rail to commute to her classes during the week.

"This stuff happens all the time, I'll figure something out," she said.

The University of Pennsylvania sent an e-mail to staff on Friday that read:

"Penn offers flexible work option guidelines to help staff and supervisors determine how to propose and consider flexible work schedules, including earlier or later arrival and departure times, working from home, or compressed schedules that involve longer but fewer days at work."

Temple, expecting that many of its employees will drive in, will offer reduced-rate parking at its Liacouras Garage and several lots. Employees will be expected to report to work on time, the university said.

Benita Cotton, 19, lives in an apartment in West Philadelphia and works at a Wendy's restaurant in Norristown.

She has her driver's permit, but no license, and relies on the train to get to work.

"I don't have a backup plan, so I'd have to call out," she said, noting that many of her coworkers also commute from Philadelphia.

"I'd have to take, like, four buses to get up here," she said, which would take longer and cost more. "It would hurt me. I don't want it to happen."

A strike "definitely will affect business," said Fabio Bevilacqua, who runs Fabio and Danny's Station Café at the Wayne station and the Bryn Mawr station café with his parents.

On Friday afternoon, Bob and Marie Even of Willow Grove were taking the train to a medical appointment in Center City.

They are not regular SEPTA riders, so they had not been following the details of the labor dispute. When Bob Even learned that rail engineers and electrical workers were seeking retroactive raises, he said, "Wow! Can I ask my boss for that?"

Bucks County Commissioner Charles H. Martin, who serves on SEPTA's board of directors, said he was not aware of any plans by Bucks officials to handle potential traffic headaches.

"Frankly, I don't know what we could do," he said.

He said most people employed by the county and working in the county seat of Doylestown already drive to work, and would be unaffected by a Regional Rail strike.

For those who use the train to commute elsewhere, he advised them to pay attention to SEPTA's alerts and the media for the latest developments.


pnussbaum@phillynews.com

215-854-4587

@nussbaumpaul

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Michaelle Bond, Harold Brubaker, Bob Fernandez, Chris Palmer, Jessica Parks, Mari A. Schaefer, and Susan Snyder.

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