One of last year’s most consequential stories for Pennsylvania’s future is one that didn’t happen. The proposed King of Prussia rail extension, which would have linked Southeast Pennsylvania’s two densest and most important commercial centers, long discussed, died an ignominious death. The project held immense promise, offering an alternative to the eternal gridlock that plagues commuters on 76. However, as Kyle Sammin outlined all the way back in 2020 for Broad + Liberty, endless legal hurdles and relentless opposition ultimately led to its demise.

The KOP rail extension, which would have added 4.5 miles to the existing Norristown High-Speed Line, had been stuck in the planning stage since 2013, despite being discussed since the 1970s and receiving over $50 million from SEPTA. Following Leslie Richards’ appointment as the authority’s general manager, the environmental review for the rail extension was at long last completed; the agency awarded contracts for the final design phase of the project in February of last year.

Only a few weeks later, the project was dead. SEPTA was denied matching funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Of the myriad projects proposed in the Biden Administration’s 2024 budget, SEPTA’s had fallen off the table. The feds expressed concerns about SEPTA’s “ability to finance its share of the project” due to cost overruns — those driven by extensive delays. 

Officials played the blame game, pointing their fingers at Harrisburg and the Collar Counties, but failing to mention the dramatic escalation in funding estimates — from $1.08 billion in 2017 to nearly triple that in 2023 — that caused the feds to hit the brakes.

The failure to build this project — and the millions of dollars and decades wasted — has tangible effects on the daily lives of Philadelphians. Philadelphia ranks a miserable eighth-worst in the country for congestion (worse than both Los Angeles and Miami), and is experiencing a significant backup as our suburbs have grown. 

The breakdown extends well beyond the rail line proposal itself, jeopardizing any major “big idea” for Philadelphia or its surrounding areas, from moving the 76ers arena to Center City to a Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, another project that has been whispered about for decades and that has received a PennDOT-backed study. The organizers of that latter effort told me that the environmental review process “needs to be shortened or expedited for transit projects,” and submitted comments to that effect to PennDOT last December. 

As I pointed out recently in the Charleston Post and Courier, other regions can look at this failure as what not to do. Regions that fail to invest in growth, and the future, are bound to face the consequences of stalling out.

The broader issue of regulations and red tape looms large. The environmental review process was necessary when the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1970, but has morphed into a veto mechanism for any project that gathers any form of opposition — that is, all of them. Anyone proposing new infrastructure projects or development should be advocating for major reforms to NEPA.

Until NEPA is reformed, project budgets will amount to nothing but a sunk cost incurred by taxpayers, and future transportation projects will stay in the “theory” phase indefinitely. By the way, the first major reform to NEPA in decades was signed by executive order by then-President Trump in 207. You can add that to the “Trump was Right” list. 

Kyle Sammin said it best while covering the “endless delays” to the KOP rail proposal for B+L in 2020:

The biggest obstacles in railway construction in the 21st century are not geography and weather, but courts, regulators, and endless public consultations… None of the requirements, taken alone, is onerous. Taken together, and exploited by professional activists and neighborhood NIMBY-ers who would rather see nothing built at all, they freeze up development that would benefit the region and the entire country.

At some point in the next decades, our local elected officials, and the federal authorities who wield so much authority over what gets done in the country, will need to regrow the political will to build. That means saying no to endless delays, lawsuits and cost overruns. That, or our region will be left behind as others move into the future. 

Albert Eisenberg is a political strategist and native Philadelphian who runs the political agency BlueStateRed. He is an original founder of Broad + Liberty, and has been featured on RealClearPolitics, Fox, Newsweek, and elsewhere. @Albydelphia.

3 thoughts on “Albert Eisenberg: Revisiting SEPTA’s epic rail fail — and why we can’t have nice things”

  1. I am old enough to be sad at remembering the foolishness of the later 1950s when public transportation was killed by superhighway construction and the abandonment of rail travel. I recall going with my mother to Philadelphia to visit my father who was in graduate school by the Liberty Bell trolley which ran from Allentown, through Center Valley and on into Philly. They were big interurban trolley cars and were comfortable, even without air conditioning. If trolleys didn’t float your boat, there was always the Reading which would get you into the Reading Terminal. So, we built roads everywhere, tore up rail tracks and generally killed public transport. What did we get in return? The Sure Kill Distress Way and the KOP interstate parking lot. Infrastructure, including public transit, needs all the help it can get, most desperately, a revision to NEPA.

  2. It’s basically politics at the brass knuckle level – the “Feds” balked at the ballooning estimated cost and SEPTA’s ability to meet its funding portion. How about the California Bullet train? it’s ballooned to over ten times the initial cost, and will not go as far as originally planned and is still inching along toward completion – someday – at over $100 Billion more than originally planned. Then there’s the Hawaiian rail boondoggle – now over 11 years behind schedule and already topping $12.45 Billion. It’s still getting its money. I guess that shows us the lack of clout that the Philadelphia/Pennsylvania Congressional delegation really has.

  3. Clout, or lack thereof, is the problem with infrastructure. With siting and funding depending on whose pockets are the deepest, projects get greenlighted or not. There is little needs analysis done. poorly crafted marketing studies and engineering concepts (with cost estimates) tossed about like Mardi Gras confetti. On the sidelines, cheering on the process are contractors and their unions salivating at the prospect of bloated contracts. Overlaying the whole mess is a smothering blanket of government at all levels. Thus, we get the California High Speed(?) rail from nowhere to nowhere and Hawaii (at least they are not talking about a bridge to the mainland). But there are plenty more, but they never seem to be useful, practical and meet a need.

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