“How many of you took transit to get here?” SEPTA Deputy General Manager Rich Burnfield asked the standing-room-only crowd that came out Thursday morning to attend the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia’s presentation on “Connecting with the King” at the Sheraton Valley Forge Hotel in King of Prussia.
Three hands went up, including that of this reporter, who spent an hour riding three different buses from his Germantown home to the meeting site.
“How many of you wished you could take transit to get here?” asked Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh after Burnfield concluded his introductory remarks.
About two-thirds of the audience in the room raised their hands.
Two-thirds is the low figure for the percentage by which the Economy League’s new study, “Connecting KOP: The Benefits of SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail Project” predicts ridership on the Norristown High-Speed Line will rise by as much as 81 percent after a planned extension to the King of Prussia mall and office park opens.
Other numbers from the report:
• $1.1 to 1.3 billion. That’s how much economic activity could be generated by just the Southeastern Pennsylvania portion of the project’s construction. (The total projected construction budget for the roughly four-mile elevated rail line is about $1.2 billion, or approximately $300 million per mile. About $672 million of that figure will be spent locally.)
• $540 to $946 million. That’s the range the study projects the estimated value of the real estate development sparked by the rail line over 20 years to be. Rezoning the area within a half-mile radius of the planned stations for transit-oriented development (TOD) could add another $216 to $357 million to that figure.
• 4.3 to 8 million. The same projection as above, expressed in terms of square feet. Rezoning the area within a half mile of the planned stations for transit-oriented development could tack another 2 to 4 million square feet onto that figure.
• 1.7 to 2.1 million. That’s the number of hours drivers won’t spend stuck in traffic getting to and around King of Prussia because of the reduction in the number of cars on the road after the line opens.
• 9,400. That’s the upper end of the league’s estimate of the new residents who will move to King of Prussia because of the rail line. That’s an increase of about 47 percent over the area’s current population of about 20,000.
50 percent. That’s how much less time it will take Norristown residents to get to King of Prussia, making them the biggest winners in the time-savings derby. Those coming from Center City will also enjoy significant travel time savings on transit, with decreases of around one-third.
There’s an existing real-world case to which we can compare these projections: that of Tysons Corner in Virginia, the office and retail complex that led author and former Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau to coin the term “Edge City.”
Justin Schor, principal at Tysons-based Wells & Associates, said that one year after the opening of the Metro Silver Line, the evolution of Tysons “may present a glimpse of what King of Prussia will look like if it follows suit.” And that looks like this: An average daily patronage of 8,000 at the four Metro stations in Tysons proper, with 40 percent of that figure using the Tysons Corner Center station by the city’s malls. Therer is new office buildings, apartments, and pedestrian-scale retail next to that station, as well 7 to 15 percent reduction in auto traffic in the area. And there’s a significant shift in journey-to-work mode share: according to the figures cited by Schor, 50 percent of Silver Line users used to commute to Tysons by car.
Robert Hart, general manager of the King of Prussia mall for owner Simon Property Group, expected to see something similar happen here. “We think it’s going to be a positive,” he said of the rail line.” The mall currently employs 7,000 workers, with an additional 1,000 joining the roster when the expansion opens. “Twenty-five percent currently use public transit to get to their jobs, and we think that share will rise when the rail line is complete. We also think it’s enticing for a customer if there’s a rail stop right at the mall.”
And some workers may end up choosing Norristown as a place to live, which is why Borough Administrator Crandall Jones is bullish on the prospect. “Because of the infrastructure development already around Norristown, the new housing that’s being developed is selling very quickly,” he said. “A lot of people [looking for housing in Norristown] are saying, ‘I work at the King of Prussia mall. I was looking for something I can afford where I can get to work on time.'” That’s currently a crapshoot on the buses that crawl up the Schuylkill Expressway along with all the cars; with the rail line in place, it will be just about a sure thing.
It will take time for all of this to come to pass, though. Elizabeth Smith, manager of long-range planning at SEPTA, said that the earliest possible date rail service to King of Prussia could start would be 10 years from now. But the crucial decisions that need to be made to advance the project will have to be made within the next year or two, which is why the Economy League partnered with Econsult Corporation to produce this study now. A second reason for its release at this time: To help generate the support that will be needed to fully fund construction. Even if SEPTA ereeives federal New Starts funding for the project as it anticipates, that funding will cover only half the construction cost, and local sources will have to pick up the other half. A website called ConnectKOP already exists as a rallying point for that support.
The Economy League’s report making the case for building the Route 100 extension can also be read and downloaded, either in full or as an executive summary, from the website’s news section.
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