Upper Merion Residents Seek to Derail KofP Train Proposal

They have several objections to the proposed Norristown High-Speed Line spur. For starters, SEPTA never sought their input into the project. From there, it's all downhill.

While the business interests and developers in King of Prussia are all in on SEPTA’s proposed Norristown High-Speed Line spur, a bunch of Upper Merion Township residents feel they’re being, ahem, railroaded — and they don’t like it one bit.

They’ve taken their case against the extension to the public in the form of a Facebook page and an online petition on Change.org.

Township resident Dan Cowhey, one of the organizers of the Facebook campaign, gave several reasons for the local opposition to the spur. They fall into four broad categories:

Poor communication on SEPTA’s part. “Many residents of Upper Merion were unaware of the project for the first two years,” he said, adding, “Upper Merion residents were not even asked whether they wanted the project to happen.”

Effect on the local environment. All of the routes being considered would pass a subdivision called the Valley Forge Homes, a collection of low-slung ranch houses built in the early 1950s. “Many have chosen to live here for the suburban life while having easy access to the city,” said Cowhey, who owns a home in the subdivision. “The Valley Forge Homes neighborhood, which would be affected the most” by the line’s construction, “is a quiet neighborhood with a beautiful open field that runs along the back. “To run a train through this neighborhood will dramatically change the neighborhood.

“Not to mention the homes are ranch-style. This means an elevated train would look over many of the homes.”

Poor planning and design. “Many of the proposed stops won’t have a parking lot, which means that residents will continue to use the existing stations,” Cowhey said. “The proposed extension does not address safety concerns residents have about trains being within 20 to 60 feet of back doors. The proposed extension also does not address access points for emergency and maintenance use should the PECO or PECO/Turnpike right of way be chosen.”

And who’s paying for it? “The cost of this project is the scariest bit of information that hasn’t been released,” Cowhey said. “I have seen the number of $1.2 billion, which is up from a figure of $500 million I heard earlier on. SEPTA hasn’t been very clear on where this money is coming from. I know they now have a plan for how it will get funded, but the bottom line is, most light rail systems need to be subsidized by local governments. What scares many residents is that if this rail extension does come into existence, many won’t be using it but our taxes will be raised to pay for it.”

Cowhey also argued that the line will not deliver either the additional ridership or traffic relief its advocates claim it will. “I think many agree traffic can be an issue,” he said. “But the majority of traffic is not between Norristown and King of Prussia, which is essentially what this rail will alleviate.

“There are lots of issues with their research,” he continued. “They’ve already stated that bus service will not be terminated” — specifically, the express buses that connect Center City with Valley Forge and Chesterbrook, both of which operate through King of Prussia — “so there will simply be a redistribution of SEPTA riders. On top of that, they have to convince drivers to choose this service. So this plan will alleviate an even smaller percentage of traffic and not alleviate it to the extent that they’re expecting.”

The bottom line, as Cowhey and the petition organizers see it? Light rail is “an expensive form of transit that is already dated as it stands now. In 10 years, when it’s complete, it will be even more dated.”

To date, 377 people have signed the online petition at Change.org, which is addressed to Gov. Tom Wolf, U.S. Reps. Brendan Boyle and Patrick Meehan, State Sen. Daylin Leach and State Rep. Timothy Briggs. “Over the last few weeks, I and a few other supporters have talked to neighbors who aren’t on social media and have expressed support as well, so we do expect that number to rise,” Cowhey said.

Given the forces arrayed against the Upper Merion residents who have launched and support this campaign, stopping the rail spur in its tracks may be a long shot. That doesn’t deter them one bit. “At the very least, we feel residents of Upper Merion should vote on the extension of the Norristown High Speed Line,” Cowhey said.

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