It began as a grand and ambitious project, heralded by SEPTA officials and rail enthusiasts as a glorious return to the golden age of trolley transit in Philadelphia.
But in just a few short weeks, it has become a $58 million lesson in local politics - and how easily good intentions can be derailed by bad manners. Daily News
Well, what did you expect? This is Philadelphia...
Now, a beautifully restored fleet of lime and cream PCC trolley cars - the centerpiece of what was supposed be the return of trolley service ttoo SEPTA's Route 15 line - sits idly in the Elmwood Depot in Southwest Philadelphia, gathering dust instead of passengers.
Newly refurbished stops along Girard Avenue are still awaiting riders and the familiar clang of the trolley's bell, which hasn't been heard there since 1992.
And freshly printed Route 15 trolley schedules, promising service would begin June 13, don't match the times being kept by the buses that are still in use on the popular Haddington-to-Port Richmond route.
Transit officials won't even speculate on when the long-awaited trolley project will get on track.
"We're temporarily not resuming service," said Frances Jones, SEPTA's assistant general manager for government affairs. "I can't give you a best estimate." Daily News
SEPTA, apparently, can't even give a "worst" estimate. Trust me, it can't be any worse of an estimate than it already is, which is to say, no body knows.
The trolley folly is an untimely embarrassment for the cash-strapped transit agency, which carries a $70 million deficit into the new fiscal year and which has lobbied incessantly in Harrisburg for increases in state funding.
It's all because of a narrow, three-block piece of North 59th Street between Vine Street and Girard Avenue - the end of the line - that SEPTA needs converted to a one-way street in order to safely operate the trolley line.
Those three blocks of 59th Street are home to about 60 working-class families who feel their concerns about SEPTA's nearby Callowhill Depot have long been neglected by the transit agency.
And so it goes that a small part of the city is holding up a very big project.
"SEPTA being here has been nothing but a hardship," said Carol Campbell, the powerful Democratic leader of the neighborhood's Fourth Ward.
"We only see them when they want something, and now they're trying to sell us a bill of goods. And you know what? It's not going to fly. We're all against it." Daily News
That's usually the way it works...
Campbell and her constituents have more than anger to back up their words.
Traffic flow on North 59th Street can be changed only by City Council ordinance, which must be introduced by the Council member who represents the area.
Councilman Michael Nutter said he's unimpressed with SEPTA's conduct in the neighborhood.
"It does appear that there has been an incredible amount of planning and design and renovation work, a whole series of steps, that in the final analysis was going on in a vacuum that seemed to have nothing to do with the people who live directly near the Callowhill station," said Nutter.
"They appear to be the last to know," added the councilman, who said SEPTA approached him several weeks ago about the need for a traffic change.
"I will not support the changing of direction of traffic on North 59th Street unless and until SEPTA reaches agreement with the affected neighbors," Nutter continued. "Or unless some other plan is developed that keeps traffic flowing in both directions with the least amount of disruption to the residents, with their agreement." Daily News
That's probably going to take a while.
SEPTA officials know they need to mend fences before trolleys can rumble up the 59th Street rails.
"SEPTA has to do some things to gain the confidence and respect of the community," said Jettie Newkirk, a lawyer and SEPTA board member who has been working to resolve the dispute.
"And that will take the time it takes." Daily News
So how did SEPTA run out of time, and get off track in the first place?
Residents, community leaders and even some transit officials acknowledge that tensions over the Callowhill Depot have escalated in recent years.
Locals have complained that SEPTA employees use surrounding streets to park their vehicles, causing more congestion and parking difficulties. They say the employees also ignore street-cleaning regulations, making it harder for city crews to keep their curbs tidy.
Residents and community leaders also say SEPTA broke promises to maintain its property and improve the neighborhood.
"They never came to us with a summer program, or a way to give kids two or three hours of work," said Campbell, who lives just a block south of the depot."They've never said 'Let's have a partnership,' or a scholarship for Overbrook [High School].
"They could have invested some money in the community, but they never reached out to the community." Daily News
On the one hand, if SEPTA did that, then every other neighborhood would want to jump on the bandwagon. On the other hand, community relations has never been SEPTA's strongest point.
Nutter agreed. "Part of the animosity is not just about the trolley," he said. "SEPTA made commitments for improvements and amenities in the neighborhood and basically never carried them through.
"If that's the nature of the relationship on small items, then when you have a big thing come up, you're going to be more or less inclined to not go along with it."
Newkirk said SEPTA's relationship with the neighborhood had deteriorated in recent years as plans to move the Callowhill Depot from 59th and Callowhill streets got delayed.
"It was anticipated that by this time the depot would be gone," she said.
If the depot moves, she added, then the residents probably would drop their opposition to the trolley. Daily News
This would be the proposed plan to move Callowhill's operations to a new site near the Overbrook rail yards near the former Acme plant on N 52 St in the Parkside neighborhood of the city; those plans are on hold after the site was sold to another party.
SEPTA officials had known for months, however, that the Callowhill Depot move would be delayed and the Route 15 trolley would be ready to resume service.
SEPTA officials said they knew months ago that they'd need traffic changes to North 59th Street. Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson said SEPTA first approached her department in January of this year.
The Streets Department agreed that due to the narrow width of 59th Street and the location of the trolley tracks in the middle of the street, it would need to either make North 59th Street one-way or remove parking on one side of the street.
"The problem is you have tracks down the middle of the street, and now it's a two-way street," said Tolson. "You can't have parking if you want a two-way street."
If SEPTA knew it would have a problem, it certainly didn't tell the community, the riding public, or even its own drivers until the last minute.
One SEPTA driver, a former trolley man with more than 20 years' experience, said he jumped at the chance back in May to bid for work on the Route 15. It was only when he reported for work on June 10 - three days before the scheduled start of trolley service - that he was told he'd be driving something else.
"They said report to bus instruction," said the driver, who spoke under condition of anonymity. "One day of bus instruction. Now I'm driving a bus." Daily News
That's normal for training purposes, though it doesn't seem to be enough...
Schedules had already been printed and posted on the Internet.
For the foreseeable future, it appears that the road to Girard Avenue - North 59th Street - will remain a two-way street with parking on both sides and no Route 15 trolley service.
It is, technically, a safety issue. Streets Commissioner Tolson said the process of analyzing traffic and making changes can take anywhere from "a couple of months to probably...years." Daily News
Well, that looks promising...
SEPTA is also still waiting for the rest of its cars. The transit agency has so far received only 10 of the 18 refurbished PCC trolley cars it intends to use on the Route 15. The last of the cars won't arrive until the end of the year, said spokesman Jim Whitaker.
He said that if service should resume before that time, light rail vehicles would be used to supplement the PCC's. Daily News
Then why set a date when you know you can't honor said date?
Some residents of 59th Street fondly remember the trolley.
"It was a comfortable ride," said Fred Sharp, 77, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. "But the traffic should be two ways."
"The trolley was always really warm, in the winter. A little slower, but an excellent ride," said 59th Street resident Carmella Johnson, 41. "I'd like to see it back on the street, but keep the traffic two-way."
"If it takes parking, that's going to be trouble," said Rena James, 40, who drives to her retail sales job. "I don't have a problem as long as they have parking." Daily News
I don't even want to go there...
Newkirk said SEPTA officials are again scouting for somewhere to move the Callowhill Depot.
And SEPTA's Frances Jones is trying to stay positive about the trolley line's prospects.
"We don't like to see it as a debacle," said Jones, who has been attending community meetings with Newkirk and other SEPTA officials. "Unfortunately some things haven't transpired the way we wanted, but we're optimistic we can work with the community to bring it to a favorable disposition." Daily News
Guess what, Ms. Jones. It is a "debacle" even by SEPTA standards. Then again, virtually any major construction project involving SEPTA - with the notable exceptions of the "Frankford Swing" project last summer and the track renewal projects by the subway-surface track crews from Elmwood - becomes a debacle.
Nutter said SEPTA should study shifting the trolley track to one side of 59th Street, so two-way traffic could be maintained. Cleaning up the area, finding additional parking and doing landscaping would also help, he said.
"You need to do something," said Nutter, "to give people a little better sense that you actually care. Daily News
News flash, Councilman. They don't...
Meanwhile, the "debacle" is just the latest in a long line of "disses" by SEPTA towards elected officials in the region. To wit:
- Last month, SEPTA got into hot water from another City Council member over the removal of trolley infrastructure along Torresdale Av in Northeast Philadelphia; the same Council member threatened to stall construction of the new parking deck at the Bridge-Pratt El Station.
- Earlier this year, SEPTA got under the skin of officials in Nether Providence Township (aka "Darby with Trees") earlier this year over plans regarding the 118 through the Garden City district of the township; SEPTA was forced to change it's plans twice before deciding to bypass the neighborhood altogether.
- For the past couple of years, SEPTA has been blasted repeatedly over its lack of outreach and communication during the early phases of the Market Street El reconstruction, most notably by Councilwoman Janie Blackwell (D-3).
- In December 2003, elected officials in Bristol Twp (all Democrats) took exception to not being invited to a "dog-and-pony" show announcing federal funding for renovations to Croydon and Levittown-Tullytown stations on the R7 Trenton line while key Republican legislators, including U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R in name only-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. James Greenwood (R-8th) were invited; Township Council President Karen Lipsack said of the snub, "... [P]olitical etiquette requires that you tell someone in the township. I find [the snub] in very poor taste."
- In June 2003, State Rep. Mario Civera (R-164) took SEPTA officials to task over poor planning of a grade crossing renewal project on the Media/Sharon Hill mainline; his reaction to SEPTA officials over the "debacle" was summed up in a veiled threat: "... Tell your people not to come to me for a dime," he said to the SEPTA representatives. "Don’t start playing games. It doesn’t work."
- In January 2003, SEPTA ran afoul of Millbourne Borough officials over the payment (or lack thereof) of permit fees relating to the re-construction of the Millbourne El station.
- Around that same time, SEPTA officials (along with PennDOT and CSX) were being criticized by Middletown (Bucks) officials over a faulty grade crossing at Woodbourne Rd; the township has recently reached a settlement with CSX and PennDOT for repairs to the crossing equipment (SEPTA, apparently, was not involved in the final settlement).
- In December 2002, SEPTA successfully sneaked through a plan to single track the R8 Fox Chase line, not only failing to keep city officials in the loop, but also infuriating riders and transit activists as well.
- Two years ago, SEPTA's plans for the 115 re-routing between Folcroft and MacDade Mall had to be changed thanks to community opposition in Norwood; apparently, SEPTA never got around to telling borough officials that the 115 would've been routed through that town.
And these are just the political snubs that I'm aware of since Fearless Leader took office in 2002...