Communication Breakdown

SEPTA veers into a potential $56 million trolley boondoggle.

Wondering what happened to the much-ballyhooed Girard Avenue trolley service set to run this fall? SEPTA’s new Route 15 trolley cars—part of a $56 million restoration project—are now parked indefinitely in a West Philadelphia depot lot. SEPTA assumed that once work on the line was completed, the city would herald the trolleys as the key to Girard Avenue revitalization and scores of Philadelphians would flock to take rides across the city.

Unfortunately, SEPTA never consulted the community—or City Council members—about its proposed plan to reconfigure a three-block section of North 59th Street between Vine Street and Girard Avenue. The trolleys needed that space to loop at the end of their route, but the change would have all but eliminated neighborhood parking.

This Route 15 debacle is just the latest embarrassment for the perpetually troubled company, which is already facing a $62 million deficit this year and a possible state takeover.

“We had hoped to get the trolley running by now,” says Jim Whitaker, a SEPTA spokesman. “We’re talking with the neighborhood and with the city to work out the situation. For now, I can’t say when the trolleys will be running.”

The Route 15 bus is now servicing the route as it has in previous years.

During Gov. Ed Rendell’s tenure as mayor, the city demanded that SEPTA deliver on its promise to refurbish its Streamline Moderne streetcars and to restore tracks along Girard Avenue from I-95 to the Callowhill Depot on North 59th Street.

SEPTA spent months fixing the tracks to the pavement and installing overhead wires—complete with “Trolley Only” white placards—and metal car barriers. In June, the project looked as if it had reached completion when the trolleys took to the streets. But a week later, the service abruptly stopped.

The trolley cars, painted in the original green, maroon and cream of the Philadelphia Transportation Company, returned to the Callowhill Depot. A muted yellow “Not In Service” sign tops every car, which are now covered with a thin layer of dust.

“A few of us got flyers about a SEPTA meeting to discuss the street,” says Stephen Porter, one of the North 59th Street block captains. “Very few people knew what was going on, but then again SEPTA only told the neighborhood after it had finished the work on the track and the trolleys. It shocks me that they didn’t come to us first, before starting all the work.”

For the residents, the problem is parking. Right now, the three-block stretch of North 59th between Vine and Girard runs two-way with parking on both sides of the street. But the trolley cars need more clearance in order to make their loop and return to the depot. SEPTA wants either to convert the corridor to one-way or to restrict parking to only one side of the street.

“Right now, we already have to fight with the SEPTA drivers for parking,” Porter says. “If they took away the parking that’s available, they’d be redirecting traffic onto small streets near here, which would affect the residents on those blocks.”

Some SEPTA drivers agree that the company didn’t plan ahead for neighborhood displacement.

“It’s obvious just looking at the streets that they were going to get jammed up without making any changes,” says Charles Peck, a bus operator and 25-year SEPTA veteran. “The drivers have no access to parking, so we take up all the neighborhood spaces. For a time, we were parking inside empty portions of the depot, but all the Route 15 trolleys are sitting in there now collecting dust.”

The transportation agency did attempt to appease residents by offering a street cleanup day in August, but few people showed up to meet with company representatives.

“I don’t blame the neighbors,” says bus driver Don Speller, who has been with the company for 14 years. “SEPTA came out and did a neighborhood cleanup and gave people a little picnic, as if a couple of hot dogs and a temporarily clean street was going to suddenly make [residents] happy about a big, loud trolley car shaking their houses every hour of the day and night.”

In order to change the direction of the street, SEPTA will need a city ordinance, which 4th District Councilman Michael Nutter says is not in the pipeline.

“I stand 100 percent with and behind the neighborhood in their opposition,” Nutter says. “There was a serious lack of communication and outreach with no lead time. I’m hopeful that good faith discussions will continue [between the neighborhood and SEPTA]. But there will be no change of direction on those three blocks of North 59th Street.”

    • Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.

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