Sunday, February 12, 2006

23 Skidoo

No, is most definitely not a story about a 1920s song about the area around Madison Square in Manhattan. But it is a story about the ongoing "substitution" of diesel bus transportation for long-tenured trolley service in Philadelphia. Let us open the book on the growing issue of what to do with Route 23 - SEPTA's venerable route serving Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, Germantown, North Philadelphia, Center City, and South Philadelphia. Name one other route that pulls that off, and maybe this isn't such a special issue for consideration.

You can't name another SEPTA route that does that - just in case you're still thinking about it.

This transit route, connecting communities representing the height of market economy excess and social and economic nadir, has been served by often aging, and recently some modern diesel bus service. Perhaps you have stood on the corner of 12th and Market or Germantown and Chelten, for example, and been blasted in the face by an offensive cloud of diesel fumes. Yeah, that was likely the 23 going by.

Since 1992 SEPTA has run its Routes 23 and 56 as "temporary" bus service. Recently, the Route 15 was liberated from this designation and received handsomely restored trolleys that were orginally built in 1947 and 48 for SEPTA's predecessor, Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC).

There is a wider issue at hand here, that SEPTA tends to make policies under the guise of "temporary" intent, with long-term or even seemingly permanent realization. The Route 56 is nearly all paved over save for a portion on Erie Avenue from Frankford to West Hunting Park Avenues through North Philadelphia and Juniata Park.

Until recently, the 23 was spared any pave-overs of trackage. But SEPTA is beginning to undertake steps to potentially ensure this established route never again rumbles with trolleys. Several years ago, a piece of track was paved over in North Philadelphia along 10th Street north of Temple's Campus. More recently, and with considerably more fiery reaction from the public, was the paving of a section of the 23's tracks from Gowen Avenue in Mount Airy to Cresheim Valley Road at the base of Chestnut Hill. SEPTA's explanation is that the trackage was damaging the wheels of cars driving on this stretch. They were right, flats along this stretch were commonplace. What's upset people so much was that the pave-over was done last minute and with no community input.

SEPTA does not have a track record that is kind to trolley transit. Since the 1960's, scores of trolley lines have been converted to diesel bus service. This is not unlike most major American cities' transit systems evolutions during that stretch of time. In fact, Philadelphia is one of the few major metropolitan areas left that actually have trolleys that operate on regular surface street rights-of-way. Further, we have more trolley lines than most cities that still have trolley service.

So why should people care about the revival of the 23? First, SEPTA committed itself to restoring not only the 23, but also Routes 56 and 15 by 1997. Thus far, only the 15 has been revived and as mentioned above, the 56 is all but a ghost now. SEPTA has played a sorry game of dirty pool with Philadelphia's mass transit advocates and trolley enthusiasts (of which there are many).

The mood in Mount Airy and even the often challenging Chestnut Hill seems to be one of positive thought about the possible revival of this venerable trolley line. Let's hope it happens. But let's not hold our breath or anything. SEPTA's disappointed us before, and it will do it again.

PS
SEPTA did disappoint again...they just rejected an option to order more trackless trolleys from New Flyer, Inc. (the manufacturer of the new fleet of buses) to replace the lost trackless vehicles on South Philadelphia's Routes 29 and 79.

Where are the voices that will push SEPTA's board back in favor of Philadelphia residents?

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