PHOENIXVILLE >> Five days after Chester County released a transportation study that cited the return of commuter rail service to Phoenixville as a “long-term-goal,” a task force put together by Mayor Peter Urscheler heard from a consultant who said it can be accomplished in the short term.
According to a July 26 presentation by railroad consultant Thomas E. Frawley, there are “no technological obstacles to a demonstration project or permanent (rail) service” returning to Phoenixville, Schuylkill Township and King of Prussia.
The July 26 meeting was attended by 20 citizen planners as well as a representative from SEPTA and Chester County.
Two major issues must be addressed for the return of rail, Frawley informed the task force — operational and infrastructure requirements of SEPTA and Norfolk-Southern, which now owns the rail system; and a funding source “will be critical to determining affordability.”
Brian Styche, transportation services director for the Chester County Planning Commission, told Digital First Media affordability will be hard to come by.
The last effort to bring rail to the region involved a project called the Schuylkill Valley Metro, that would have connected Center City Philadelphia with Reading, with stops all along the riverside tracks, but would have been funded in part by tolls on Route 422.
The idea, that the commuter rail could help reduce traffic on Route 422, ran into a buzz-saw of opposition from the public and from Harrisburg.
“The issues involved revolve around sharing the rails with the Norfolk-Southern freight line and the only practical way to do that is to electrify the entire line or use some kind of hybrid that hasn’t been invented yet,” Styche said last month.
“Ultimately, it takes money to make it happen and we’re talking billions, not millions, but billions of dollars” to bring back regional rail, said Styche.
But Frawley’s initial investigation suggests it could be done for much less, partially because service would not be extended beyond Phoenixville.
According to his presentation, he estimated it would cost just under $15 million to extend SEPTA’s R-6 suburban rail line to Phoenixville and an annual $2.7 million for operations and maintenance.
However, that annual cost does not include the cost of leasing “rolling stock,” nor the cost of leasing land for stations and a storage facility, which he envisioned being near Cromby Power Station or an alternative site in Phoenixville, which the study did not identify.
As for stations, Frawley’s report identifies three possible locations in Phoenixville — the industrial complex at 41 S. 2nd Ave.; Holy Ghost Orthodox Catholic Church or “railroad property at Bridge Street.”
In Schuylkill Township, the identified potential rail stations are — at the Valley Forge Sewer Authority; or “railroad property” south of Pawlings Road.
The potential King of Prussia stations are identified in the study as — Port Kennedy; the bridge construction staging site, where the Route 422 bridge crosses the Schuylkill River; or the “Mancill Mill site” further downstream.
Any of the King of Prussia sites would be dependent on a shuttle bus to the mall and office parks to make them viable, Frawly wrote.
Frawley estimated the rail extension to Phoenixville could generate about 1,800 two-way trips per day for the system, which his study assumes would be operated by SEPTA.
“We are going to make innovative suggestions and seek to start with three trips into the city in the morning and three trips back to Phoenixville at night through a two-year demonstration program,” Frawley said, according to a press release issued by the task force. “I believe the project shows a lot of promise.”
All these possibilities are merely that, however.
Urscheler assembled a team of citizens that will work to make the project a reality pending the approval of borough council.
In the press release, Urscheler noted that “we will send this to the infrastructure committee for presentation on Aug. 17 and, if it passes the subcommittee, it will go to council for a full vote on Sept. 11.”
The Task Force will be asking council for permission to pursue the further investigation of the potential project.
“There is a plethora of entities involved and before we start contacting people we need to get an assurance that this is something that the Borough of Phoenixville wants,” Urscheler said. “The borough will have the two meetings to discuss the issues and determine if the Mayor’s Task Force moves forward to secure more facts and do additional stakeholder analysis through the citizen planner process,” he said.
Nevertheless, Phoenixville real estate developer and lifelong resident Manny DeMutis felt it was a subject worth exploring and he put his money on the table to do so.
Project Manager Barry Cassidy said the study cost DeMutis “about $40,000.”
“Recently I read a book ‘The New Localism,’ which discusses ways communities can take back the process through community action,” DeMutis said in the release.
“I believe that the location of power is shifting and drifting downward to cities and metropolitan communities and horizontally from government and professional planners to networks of action oriented public, private and civic participants”, DeMutis said.
“The professional planners must recognize and respond to the reality that Phoenixville is a quickly growing population center in Chester County and now has become a small city,” DeMutis said. “If it takes citizen action planners to act in professional planners inability to accept the reality of the situation, so be it,” he added.