Rapid transit for the Northeast is once again a live issue. So, as the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission commences the umpteenth feasibility study of transit improvements for Roosevelt Boulevard, the Broad Street of the Northeast, let us raise our glasses and drink a toast to the 101st anniversary of the Northeast Spur subway-elevated.
On paper, that is, where it may well remain forever.
The DVRPC’s current study will not look at rail rapid transit as one of its options for the Boulevard, which would be a shame, for it seems that at long last, everyone — even residents of the Northeast — agrees it’s time to make Philly’s answer to the Second Avenue Subway a reality. A cell-phone text poll conducted last fall by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission drew some 600 responses to the question, “Would you ride a rapid transit service along the Boulevard to get to Center City?” 97 percent of the respondents said yes.
But only two-thirds said they’d be willing to transfer to the Broad Street Subway to get there, which gives an immediate built-in advantage to the would-be Northeast Spur, or the “Boulevard subway.”
Of all the planned-but-never-built rapid transit lines in the city — and there are a lot of those — the Boulevard subway is the one that refuses to die. So as the DVRPC gets ready to bury it, maybe we should take a look back at its long and frustrating history.
The Northeast’s spine line first surfaced in July 1912. That was when A. Merritt Taylor, first commissioner of the newly created Department of City Transit, unveiled a plan for a comprehensive system of subway and elevated lines that would provide service to most of the city’s far-flung outlying districts. Its two key components were a new elevated line that would head north, then northeast, from the end of the Market Street subway-elevated to serve Kensington, Frankford and what would become Mayfair, and a Broad Street trunk line from Logan to League Island with branches to the Northeast, Germantown and Roxborough via the Ben Franklin Parkway. A new branch off either the Market Street line or a new Chestnut Street subway would serve Southwest Philadelphia, and a loop subway would distribute Broad Street riders around the city center.
Philadelphia City Councils — the city had a bicameral legislature back then — approved the whole package in 1914 and work began on the first segments the following year. About two years later, lack of funds and wartime material shortages caused the city to halt work on all but the Frankford elevated. Work on an altered Broad Street Line, but not its branches, resumed in 1925, and the initial segment of the Broad Street Subway from Olney Avenue to City Hall entered service in September 1928.
It would be another 25 years or so before the city dusted off the Northeast branch of the Broad Street Subway when it planned to let contracts for a new subway line under the Boulevard that would feed into the trunk at Erie station, as the orginally planned line would do. By the mid-1950s, the still largely empty Northeast was rapidly developing in an auto-oriented, suburban style and filling with residents fleeing older parts of the city. Those residents raised a hue and cry about the line, objecting that it would bring undesirables to the area. This racially tinged fear led the city to pull the plug on the effort, opting instead to build a park-and-ride facility next to the subway yard and shops in Fern Rock.
The city revived those plans again in the late 1960s. This time, there wasn’t quite the outcry that greeted the last plan, perhaps because the residents had discovered driving down the Boulevard and its new freeway extension to reach a jammed Schuylkill Expressway was no picnic either. Some work had even been done in anticipation of the new line — a subway station was built underneath a parking garage next to the huge Sears catalogue warehouse as part of a project that added a new retail store to it.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, it looked as if the Boulevard subway might actually get built. Mayor Frank Rizzo even applied for federal grant money to help build the line. At the same time, he submitted a second application, this one to obtain funds for a proposed Center City tunnel that would connect the city’s two commuter rail systems. As former SEPTA transportation planner Tom Hickey recalled at the Commuter Tunnel’s 25th anniversary, William Coleman, an old friend of Rizzo’s, called the mayor on his last day as President Gerald Ford’s Transporation Secretary and told him he could approve only one of the two grant applications.
“Approve the tunnel,” Rizzo reportedly told him. “We can get to the subway in a later phase.”
Residents of the northern ‘burbs headed for the Market Street West office canyon are no doubt grateful. We’re not so sure the same is true for Northeast and Lower Bucks residents driving the Boulevard.
Tw0 more feasibility studies conducted by the City Planning Commission — one in the 1990s and the other in 2003 — both reached the same conclusion: Rapid transit would be the best mass transit solution for the Boulevard. And in 2008, the DVRPC listed the Boulevard rapid transit line as one of the 10 major expansion projects that made up its “Long-Range Vision for Transit.” The reason it’s not among the DVRPC’s options now can be summed up in one word: Cost. The options that would do the most to improve the Boulevard for drivers and neighbors alike — sinking the inner lanes and building a rapid transit line in its median — are both way too expensive for anyone to contemplate seriously right now.
So, in the name of getting something, anything, built, the DVRPC is taking off the table the one thing just about everybody agrees should be built. Maybe in another 101 years, we will finally get around to actually building it.