The Roosevelt Boulevard subway could finally happen after a century of false starts
Donna Fitzpatrick first heard about it when she was a teenager. The mythical idea would resurface in conversations with her Somerton neighbors. It would be promoted by local activists, or studied by the city. It always sounded too good to be true:
The Roosevelt Boulevard subway line.
“In the Northeast, it’s like a quasi-urban legend,” Fitzpatrick, now 30 and living in Fishtown. “Like, ‘Oh yeah, the Boulevard subway.’ Some people would talk about it with optimism, some people would say, ‘can you believe they thought that?'”
Growing up queer in an Irish Catholic family, Fitzpatrick dreamt about having an easy way to spend more time in the Gayborhood, at places like the Attic Youth Center. The subway line would have offered one-seat travel there and back.
The main corridor connecting Center City with the Northeast Philly, Roosevelt Boulevard has long been one of the most dangerous roadways in Philadelphia. From 2011 to 2015, more than four dozen people died in traffic accidents there. Making the trip downtown accessible by public transit could be a boon to many of the 400,000 people living in that part of the city, neighborhood leaders say.
“Having that rail line would be a real positive, eliminating cars and making it a much quicker trip to work,” Jack O’Hara, president of the Greater Bustleton Civic League, told Billy Penn. “I think it would be a smart idea.”
The Roosevelt Boulevard rail line was first thought up in the early 20th century. The proposal got serious enough that a subway station was built. Though it was much discussed, the rest of the project never actually materialized.
But the idea isn’t dead yet. Changes have come to the Boulevard in recent years. Express bus service premiered there in 2017. Then red light speed enforcement cameras were installed two years ago, and actually succeeded in reducing violations.
And now the infamous subway has come into popular conversation again, endorsed by transit advocates and espoused by state Rep. Jared Solomon, whose district includes part of the city’s Northeast section.
“Any big, big change on the Boulevard would mean a big investment,” Solomon said. “And that is what makes this conversation so exciting. The job creation numbers, positive environmental impact and long-term growth opportunities are off the charts.”
Is it time, at last, for a Northeast Philly rail line? SEPTA’s not committing to it. But with an influx in federal infrastructure funding, some say the Roosevelt Boulevard subway may finally come to life.
Wait, a subway line along Roosevelt Boulevard?
Yes, this is a real idea that we did not make up.
The original pitch was an extension of the Broad Street line, starting at one of the northernmost Broad Street Line stations and running diagonally up Roosevelt Boulevard. It’s sorta like the Broad Ridge Spur in Chinatown. The goal: to better connect the Northeast to Center City.
How many times did this come up?
The Northeast Philly transit line was first proposed in 1913 by then-Transportation Commissioner A. Merritt Taylor. At the time, Center City’s population was booming — and there was a need to distribute people more equally among Philly neighborhoods.
The Market-Frankford Line was actively under construction. In addition to the Roosevelt Boulevard line, Taylor pitched several extra subway lines that never came to be: one that ran to Northwest Philly, and another that went from Darby through Philly to Camden.
The Roosevelt Boulevard line was the most persistent. It was seriously considered again in the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1960s and in 2003.
I heard there’s a ghost station?
Yes, back in the ’60s, they even built a subway station along the route. It was at Roosevelt Boulevard and Adams Avenue — and paid for by Sears, since the home goods chain had a complex nearby.
“We have the luxury of looking back,” said O’Hara, of the Greater Bustleton Civic League. “A lot of workers are up in this area that have to travel into town. It’s like, yeah, why wouldn’t you think of something more accommodating?”
Why wasn’t it finished?
You’ve asked an age-old Philly question! Why don’t things get done?
In this case, despite it being proposed multiple times, the Roosevelt Boulevard subway line never actually made it past the study phase. It appears there just wasn’t the political will to make it happen.
So why now?
Federal funding is a big reason. The current moment is seen as an opportune time for new infrastructure and transit projects, because Pennsylvania has billions of dollars in federal funding on the table. That’s thanks to the infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021.
Northeast Philly state Rep. Solomon jumped on the opportunity. He’s planning a community town hall at the end of August to see if people are still interested.
“Everyone at the federal, state and local level is thinking infrastructure, which makes this a good environment to have the conversation,” Solomon told Billy Penn. “It gives us an opportunity to rethink, reenvision and redefine who we are and what we want to be.”
Where would the subway actually be?
Since the line never moved past the study phase, we don’t have a super exact map for the project.
But, basically, it would start at a northern BSL stop — some have said Erie Station, but the OG map isn’t labeled — then curve northeast along Roosevelt Boulevard until just before it hits Bucks County.
How much would it cost?
The last estimates available are from a 2003 study. In early 2000s dollars, the project would have cost between $2.5 to $3.5 billion and could be built within 10 years.
Who’s gonna pay for it?
That’s undecided! Of course, the hope from local leaders is money would be drawn from that federal infrastructure funding. Most federal grants require cities and states to pay about half the cost when expanding rail service.
What does SEPTA think of all this?
The Philly region transit authority seems… curious. But leadership isn’t committing to anything.
“SEPTA is interested in hearing what ideas come out of the meeting later this month,” said agency spokesperson Andrew Busch. “We are always open to having discussions about ways to improve service.”
So… will it happen or not?
Hard to say. This is all still very much an idea, one that has not been officially endorsed by any local or state officials. It could be just another resurgence of an urban legend.
Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Bustleton, is hopeful.
“This time does feel different to me, in a good way,” she said. “I’m trying to remain optimistic.”
We’ll get a better sense of how Northeast Philly neighbors feel about the idea at Rep. Solomon’s town hall later this month. Asked what he’s hoping to see at the meeting, Solomon said “open and honest conversation.”
Both O’Hara and Fitzpatrick said they’re planning to attend. Even though Fitzpatrick lives in Fishtown now, she’s still invested in the Northeast. Her father lives in Torresdale, and she’s got a few aunts in Fox Chase. She wants an easier way to go see them.
“I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime,” Fitzpatrick said. “To see it really gaining traction is super exciting.”