The Real Reason Behind the Push for KOP Rail

The business coalition backing the KOP Rail project cites several transportation-related reasons to support it. But note who's leading the charge.

Norristown Transportation Center

Montgomery County officials point out that the proposed KOP Rail spur would not only make King of Prussia more accessible to Center City residents, it would do the same for Norristowners too, giving the housing market there a shot in the arm. | Photo: Montgomery County Planning Commission, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0

The push to build a new Norristown High-Speed Line spur to serve King of Prussia continues to gather momentum, though its critics aren’t going away either.

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SEPTA’s release earlier this month of the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the proposed line has energized both sides in the debate over the spur’s merits. Spur proponents have formed a coalition to support the rail line project, and SEPTA made some changes to the route that was ultimately selected to keep it from literally running through people’s backyards. But those tweaks have not been enough to mollify critics of the line.

That’s because this project isn’t really about reducing traffic congestion in King of Prussia, though proponents say it will keep it from getting worse.

“Retrofitting urbanity” onto KOP

What it’s about is taking some of the edge off of an edge city and putting a little more city in. “Retrofitting urbanity,” if you will.

“I think that’s a great way to phrase it,” said Brandywine Realty Trust President and CEO Jerry Sweeney, the chair of the newly formed King of Prussia Rail Coalition. “A number of these town centers around the country are reinventing themselves.”

The opponents recognize this too, and that fact puts them, well, on edge. Here’s what King of Prussia resident Dan Cowhey told Jim Saksa of WHYY’s Plan Philly:

“A lot of people are concerned with too much change in King of Prussia in general. I know the term ‘edge city’ is being thrown around [but] a lot of King of Prussia residents [don’t want] to become a city. They want to keep that little bit of small-town feel that’s left in King of Prussia.”

No longer a small town

Unfortunately for Cowhey, that train has long since left the station. What was still a semi-rural crossroads when Kravco Realty decided to build a shopping center at it in 1965 has become the region’s third-largest employment center after Center City and University City, and that shopping center has morphed into the largest mall in the United States in terms of actual selling space (the Mall of America outside Minneapolis is larger, but a chunk of its interior is given over to an indoor amusement park).

That puts King of Prussia in league with Tysons Corner, Va., a similar semi-rural crossroads that became the ur-edge city. And Sweeney points out that down there, his firm was also part of a coalition that successfully pushed for a Washington Metro extension to serve it.

Brandywine is also leading a similar charge in a third city. “We’re the largest landlord in Austin, Texas, just as we are here in Philadelphia,” he says. “Austin is a market that does not have a robust, rail-based transportation system. One of our developments sits on the only train line in Austin, and we’ve worked with the local railroad authority to increase the number of stops in this region.”

The real estate case for transit

Why does Brandywine care so much about this issue? It’s good for the company’s bottom line, as it is for other real estate developers.

“One of the things we have seen in a number of markets around the country is that accessibility to mass transit is a powerful differentiator in value growth rates and subsequent development in suburban developments,” Sweeney says.

Put in plain English: Having a dedicated transit line makes property along it much more valuable and encourages denser construction. Or, in other words, transit is as much about real estate as it is about moving people from point A to point B, if not more so.

Denser construction is already happening in King of Prussia: single-family subdivisions like the one Cowhey lives in simply aren’t being built. What is are townhouse-style developments like Toll Brothers’ Brownstones at the Village at Valley Forge and multi-unit residential projects like Korman Communities’ AVE and Bozzuto Development’s Canvas Valley Forge.

That last development is aimed at the 55-plus crowd. And Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh says that improving the quality of mass transit in King of Prussia matters to them too.

Seniors, environment will benefit too, advocates say

“This will connect seniors to our medical centers in University City,” she says. And that’s just one of the health and environmental benefits the physician says the spur will deliver.

“There will be 18 million fewer vehicle miles traveled once this line is built,” she says. “That works out to a per-person reduction of 4,800 pounds of carbon a year, so that’s a substantial environmental impact.”

Some of that will be offset by the increase in the area’s population, but once again, Arkoosh points out, better mass transit will reduce the new residents’ need to drive too.

“There’s [already] a lot of congestion in Upper Merion Township, and the place is booming,” she says. “We’re already having some serious capacity issues, especially at rush hour.” And with another 2,500 units of housing slated to be added to the current count, that capacity will be overtaxed.

Some legitimate objections, but….

The proponents of the KOP Rail line recognize that the opponents, particularly those in Cowhey’s subdivision, Valley Forge Homes, had some legitimate objections to the planned route. “I personally went and stood in a number of their backyards and got an understanding of how close the train would have been” to them, Arkoosh says. “I met with SEPTA officials and they responded with another moving of the route.” The final routing of the “locally preferred alternative” crosses the Turnpike twice to avoid running through two subdivisions, one on each side of the highway.

Of course, the opponents have other arguments besides the purely personal ones. One of the biggest ones has to do with the cost of the project, which could still keep it from becoming reality: Arkoosh notes that even if the Trump administration ends up keeping the Federal New Starts grant program alive, that program would pick up only half of its projected $1 billion price tag. “We still have to raise $500 million, and that has to come from several sources,” she says — sources that have yet to be identified.

We’re going to have to build something somewhere

The No KOP Rail Facebook page contains links to several articles by Randal O’Toole, a noted critic of rail transit. In one of them, he points out that high construction and maintenance costs put rail at an inherent disadvantage when compared to buses, which can share the same infrastructure cars and trucks use. In this case, however, that infrastructure is already overloaded at peak hours and crowded most of the rest of the day as well. Because of this, the two SEPTA bus routes that use it are among the system’s most frequently delayed. Fixing that will require an investment in dedicated, fixed transit infrastructure of some sort.

The Norristown rail line’s already there, so it does make sense for the King of Prussia business community to consider it the best option for fixing some of the transportation issues that have arisen in the wake of KOP’s growth. But when you look at it through the lens of real estate development, the business leaders’ case becomes stronger still.

SEPTA will hold public hearings on the DEIS on Nov. 13th and 15th: two sessions at the DoubleTree Valley Forge Hotel on the 13th and one at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown on the 15th. Whatever your views on the issue, you should attend to make them known. If you can’t attend, you can submit comments via the comment form on SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail Project website or send them by mail to:

Ms. Liz Smith
SEPTA Project Manager
c/o McCormick Taylor, Inc. (ATTN: ECW)
2001 Market Street, 10th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19103