by Manuel McDonnell-Smith
Executives from the Philadelphia Zoo are on tour asking residents of Parkside and Mantua to support a new train plan from 30th Street Station. Anyone from Lancaster Avenue to Leidy Avenue knows the weekend routine – get into your car and avoid 34th and Girard Ave if you want to get anywhere fast. Zoo crowds are notorious for backing up traffic in and around the neighborhood. While things have gotten somewhat better in the past few years with the addition of the parking deck at the Zoo Transportation Center and other slight traffic pattern changes on Girard Avenue and 34th Street, backups are still a too-often occurrence.
So, with packed roads and less-than-ideal public transit options for Zoo Visitors, where should we look for solutions to the traffic nightmare around 34th and Girard? “Up high” says Kenneth Woodson, Vice President for Community Relations at the Zoo who has been circling around the neighborhood touting a new Zoo community outreach plan, part of which includes the monorail, which if built, would operate on a new line to be built between the Zoo and 30th Street Station, with a possible future extension from the Zoo up Parkside Avenue to the Mann Music Center.
With a high-flying idea like this, you might think Woodson is over-inspired by the runaway success of the Zoo Balloon, which sends huge crowds into the air over the Zoo each weekend. But a recently released study published by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) shows there is some merit to the Zoo’s idea.
In the DVRPC analysis, commissioned by both the Zoo and SEPTA, a 1.5-mile system is envisioned beginning at 30th Street Station and then snaking northward along SEPTA’s Powelton Rail Yard through University City and Mantua before making a stop at the Zoo. An expansion across Girard Avenue, and up Parkside Avenue providing access to the Please Touch Museum and the Mann Music Center “is only a possibility”, says Woodson, but it’s enough of one that conceptual plans for the actual Zoo stop have not been finalized. If the eventual monorail line stops in front of the Zoo, then future expansion north and west would be stymied by the large four track Northeast Corridor Bridge that abuts Zoo’s western boundary. “Going along Zoological Avenue could offer options for an overpass,” explains Woodson.
But those Parkside Avenue options are far-off in potential phase two plans. There’s still much to be decided in the first phase of the project. Two guideway options currently exist, one that stays closer to the rail yard, and another that would stop closer to the existing street grid along 32nd Street. Under either scenario, neighborhood access would be provided by stops at Race Street, Spring Garden Street and on Mantua Avenue. Authors of the study propose that operations be kept “simple, realistic, and easy to understand”, who plan service to operate with ten-minute headways.
While the report authors and Zoo Officials are optimistic about simple operation, much of the monorail concept faces complex questions. What would it look like, and how big would it be? Will residents in neighborhoods with historic character like University City, Mantua, and Parkside support a dual-track modern monorail running down the streets?
Another issue is ridership. If you build it, will they come? In the most optimistic ridership projections provided by the study about 6,000 riders would use the system daily. But that’s only if the system offered free fares. With full-fare added, the daily total of passengers drops to just over 1,400.
The Zoo is also promoting the monorail plan as a way to relieve congestion caused by crowds visiting the Zoo. But even free monorail service is only expected to capture just over 220 riders daily. Most riders using the potential service are forecast to use the neighborhood stops, not the one at the Zoo. Woodson says the Zoo prefers to see the project in terms of “total ridership: how many residents will get to ride and the opportunity for access to other cultural institutions in the area”.
SEPTA, the most-likely potential operator of the system, and one of the stakeholders in the eventual fare decision on the monorail system declined to offer formal comment other than to confirm their participation in the study and to commit to “continue to work with area stakeholders in the future.”
Marjorie Ogilvie, chairperson of the Business Association of West Parkside was one of the first in the neighborhood to learn of the monorail plan and is initially supportive of the plan. “We need more viable direct transportation in this community. What we really need is a train stop [along SEPTA’s Paoli Line] to allow our residents access in and out for work and play. But we’ll support a monorail if that’s what we can get.”
Woodson says additional community outreach events are planned for later this month where he hopes to get more feedback from neighbors as the Zoo plans the next steps in promoting the project. He says that there could be additional benefits beyond traffic relief from this project, adding that “this could be an huge opportunity for economic development.”