The Roosevelt Boulevard subway and the need for ambitious public transit leadership | Editorial
A Roosevelt Boulevard subway would serve up to 124,500 daily riders, divert more than 80,000 daily car trips, and cut the transit travel time between the bustling Northeast and Center City in half. The massive undertaking would also create construction jobs and spur economic development along the proposed line.
So why can’t a project that nearly everyone agrees would be transformative get off the ground? According to SEPTA CEO Leslie Richards, the answer is money.
The SEPTA chief is not wrong. But more than funding, what’s missing is the political imagination.
While the hefty price tag for the new subway line would likely be north of $3 billion, President Joe Biden’s signature piece of legislation is a bipartisan infrastructure package that authorized billions of dollars in Capital Investment Grants — and other major cities have not been shy in asking for their share.
Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Boston, and New York have one or more projects in line for federal funding. Meanwhile, there is not a single proposed project within Philadelphia on the list.
Originally built as a more suburban enclave for white middle-class families after World War II, the Northeast has become one of the most diverse and dynamic areas in the country. Yet this growing community lacks a strong transit connection to the rest of the city.
If SEPTA and Philadelphia were to bid on federal New Starts funding, only New York City’s Second Avenue subway extension would have higher ridership projections, an important factor in the grant process. A New Starts grant could cover roughly half of the project’s construction cost.
Another way to shore up SEPTA’s operating budget would be to secure local support for the agency’s current major capital project, the King of Prussia rail line. While advocates for the KOP rail have always stressed the regional benefits of uniting three major job centers, this project has significantly lower ridership projections than the Boulevard subway. It is also entirely located within Montgomery County, which has the second-highest per capita income of any county in the state. In addition, concessions to local not-in-my-backyard opponents inflated costs.
Given that SEPTA currently has limited funds for capital projects, it is more than reasonable to ask county officials to contribute.
There’s also money available at the state level. In part because Harrisburg Republicans refused to let him spend anything, former Gov. Tom Wolf left the state with a record $12 billion surplus. The state certainly has many needs, but given the project’s potential benefits, the Boulevard subway should rank as one of them.
Beyond one-time financing, what’s needed is a consistent regional funding source for SEPTA that will make system growth and improved service more feasible. Unlike cities such as Boston or Denver, which regularly expand transit access, Philadelphia and the surrounding counties have never made a steady, substantial investment in local public transit, instead relying on Harrisburg to shoulder the load.
Philadelphia can look to Denver, which adopted a transit-dedicated 0.4% sales tax, or Seattle, which has created a transit benefit district. While introducing new taxes is never a pleasant experience for politicians, transit referendums have seen success in communities across the country as taxpayers recognize them as a worthwhile investment. Given the scale of local transit needs, which include not just capital projects like the Boulevard subway and the KOP rail, but operational needs such as competitive pay for bus drivers and increased cleanliness at stations, this funding is more essential than ever.
So yes, there’s not enough money for the Roosevelt Boulevard subway right now, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be. All it takes is for Philadelphia’s leaders to think boldly.