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PennDOT commits to studying possibility of Roosevelt Boulevard subway

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

A representative for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said this weekend that the agency will study potential options for adding a subway or rail line on Roosevelt Boulevard.

In a public meeting hosted by Pennsylvania Rep. Jared Solomon, representatives from SEPTA, PennDOT and the Philadelphia Office of Transportation and Infrastructure discussed the project, which has long been called for as a way to better connect Northeast Philadelphia to Center City and make one of the city's most dangerous roads safer. The idea for a subway along Roosevelt Boulevard dates back more than a century.

Ashwin Patel, a senior manager at PennDOT, said at the meeting that the agency would study what is feasible — whether it be a subway, an elevated rail line or more dedicated bus routes. That exploration would be done as an expansion of the city-administered Route for Change program for Roosevelt Boulevard, released in spring 2021.

The plan covers various short-term alternatives to making the road safer, like designated bus lanes and more direct bus routes. The program's long-term solutions include rapid transit buses or making changes to the surface of the road to make it more closely resemble either the Ben Franklin Parkway or the Vine Street Expressway. The scope of Route for Change did not include a subway or rail solution.

For Solomon, the commitment from PennDOT is a step toward progress. He said he's heard from his constituents that they "want to see change on the Boulevard," and he's pushing for a form of rapid transit.

Solomon said that starting within weeks and taking place over the next few months, he will continue to host community sessions to gather input he hopes will inform the study. The Democrat representing the 202nd District, which encompasses a stretch of the boulevard near Oxford Circle, said that "the name of the game is public engagement."

"Hopefully, when that study comes out it’s going to embrace rapid transit, and then next is securing the dollars," Solomon said.

Though an updated cost in today's dollars hasn't been put forth, Patel said at the meeting that some estimates are as high as $1 billion to $4 billion per mile for a subway project.

"If you start to throw out the 'b-word,' whether it's the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York or the ongoing connectivity work in Los Angeles with rapid transit, other cities are not intimidated, don't cower from the billion number," Solomon said. "They respond to it, they rally around it and they execute on a unified vision."

Solomon is hoping for buy-in from business leaders, community leaders and nonprofits alike, along with government agencies like SEPTA, PennDOT and the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure. He thinks it can lead to more efficient movement of goods and services in and out of Northeast Philadelphia. Businesses and schools would benefit from rapid transit in the Northeast, Solomon said.

Like many other leaders in Philadelphia, Solomon is eyeing the semiquincentennial in 2026 as a milepost for major projects — not for completion but for substantial progress.

"I see 2026 as a great marker because 2026 in Philadelphia is where we’ll be welcoming the nation to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania," Solomon said. "It would be good to advance this project to where people see the future of an interconnected city in a way we’ve never seen before."

In a statement to the Business Journal, SEPTA touted the success of its Boulevard Direct bus service and said it is "looking forward to continuing to discuss ways to improve service on the Roosevelt Boulevard corridor."

"We are committed to working closely with the community, elected officials and other stakeholders to make additional improvements," the transit agency said. Right now, Solomon's focus is not letting the opportunity to advance the project slip away.

"Are we going to take advantage of what is a roadway that is perfectly constituted for rapid transit, and do something big and visionary and transformational that will have a huge environmental impact, create a decade of job growth for the trades and others?" Solomon said. "That growth can be done hyper-focused on local folks in and around the Northeast, and it can save lives and make the Boulevard safer."

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