The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s Media/Elwyn regional rail line, which serves the borough of Swarthmore and stops next to campus, will soon extend three more miles to Wawa, PA, due to the November passage of a state transportation funding package, SEPTA officials say. Earlier in the fall, SEPTA officials said they would be forced to shut down much of the 13-line regional rail system, including the entire Media/Elwyn line, if the state did not come up with funds for long-deferred infrastructure repairs. Now, they say, those repairs are funded and the agency can again consider system expansion.
SEPTA officials say the extension will serve an additional 500 commuters each weekday.
The expected opening date of the extension has not yet been announced, but a SEPTA spokesman said that the agency will release a comprehensive five-year capital plan, detailing further specifics about infrastructural changes, including, possibly, an opening date, in the coming months.
SEPTA already owns track out to Wawa and even further, but it has not been used for passenger service in nearly 30 years. This project will involve the construction of a second track with new electric catenary wires to power the trains, as well as new bridges, structural improvements to the line, and a large new station with a parking garage in Wawa. The station will have high-level platforms, which allow passengers to move on and off trains without going up or down steps and make travel easier for the disabled, as well as a sales office, new ticket vending machines and an indoor passenger waiting room. It will be located on the Baltimore Pike, near the headquarters of Wawa, Inc., the farm and convenience store company.
The extension project will also include a new railcar storage facility, which will allow for a parking expansion in Media, where the cars are currently stored.
“We’re looking at strategic places where we can increase parking capacity,” SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said. “The parking lots are already overcrowded and we don’t want people waiting for others on trains clogging residential streets.”
The Elwyn-to-Wawa extension has been discussed since the 1990s, but serious planning didn’t get underway until June 2005, when engineering and design work began. In recent years, the project has appeared as an unfunded item on SEPTA’s capital budgets — designed, engineered, and ready to go. Some initial prep work was done using federal stimulus funds.
In its latest projections, released in August, SEPTA estimated the entire cost of the project at just under $92 million.
“The long-range plan that we’ve put together is possible because of funding from Act 89 from the state, the transportation bill,” Busch said.
The contentious $2.5 billion bill barely passed the state House in November and involves raising gas taxes and other fees to pay for infrastructure repairs and improvements across the state. It will provide an influx of funds for projects across the state, many of them administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. It was a major priority of Republican Governor Tom Corbett, who faces a tough reelection bid this fall.
A lack of stable funding has dramatically slowed SEPTA’s building process, officials say.
“Not too long after 2009, we had significant reduction in funding, and dozens of projects were put on hold. If we had had higher funding we would probably be further along,” Busch said. “I can’t really compare the timeline now to 2008, because when we have infrastructure-intensive projects and they’ve been pushed off for a number of years, it creates problems and re-adjusts our normal timetable.”
In January, SEPTA released a preliminary capital improvement plan called “Catching Up” — the title intended to suggest the backlog of projects that SEPTA faces. One of the most pressing needs, officials say, is the replacement of the small fleet of electric locomotives and the cars they haul, many of which date back to 1987. SEPTA has proposed replacing the cars with new two-level cars to accommodate increased ridership.
Service on the Media/Elwyn line once extended all the way out to West Chester, PA, but was cut back to Elwyn in 1986 due to deteriorating track conditions and low ridership. In recent years, regional rail ridership has significantly increased, and the Media/Elwyn line is one of the more heavily traveled lines in the system, serving around 10,000 daily riders.