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SEPTA Route 49 continues to receive mixed reviews

At latest hearing, Grays Ferry folks expressed thoughts about the seven-mile route that would connect South Philly to University City and beyond.

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The three-and-a-half year conversation surrounding projected SEPTA Bus Route 49

continued last week during public hearings regarding the transit authority’s 2019 Fiscal Year Annual Service Plan, which proposes 15 new or amended routes throughout Southeast Pennsylvania.

The latest version of Route 49 reaches as far north as Strawberry Mansion, weaving throughout major urban districts, including University City and Center City West, eventually traveling all the way south to Grays Ferry, stretching a total of seven miles near the Schuylkill River.

Residents of Grays Ferry have expressed mixed feelings about the latest revised route, which has undergone several tweaks since its inception a few years ago.

However, despite debates and alterations in streets and lengths, Route 49, which plans to run seven days a week, retains its primary purpose — to provide easier access to the health, employment and transportation resources in University City.

“When we realized there was a gap in our network, we decided to see what was there now in terms of residents striving to get to University City,” Anita R. Davidson, SEPTA management analyst, told SPR following the hearing.

Davidson said, some years ago, SEPTA started receiving requests from the Fairmount community for better public transportation access to that region of the city and, eventually the transit authority was presented with similar thoughts from residents in Grays Ferry.

“Once we saw there was a similar request in Grays Ferry, we decided to take a look and see if there was something we could do to address that need,” she said.

Before embarking on a new project, SEPTA reflected on all of its current routes that travel though Brewerytown, Fairmount and Grays Ferry. Davidson said they noticed some of those routes, like Route 7 and Route 12, were activity avoiding University City, which is the second-largest central business district in the city.

Latest version of projected Route 49. (Image courtesy of SEPTA.)

From there, SEPTA partnered with the University City District to conduct research about the demographics and traffic pumping in and out of the area on a daily basis.

According to their 2013 findings, substantial numbers of University City employees commute from Fairmount with a significant population coming from Grays Ferry, as well.

The research also revealed the area experienced a nearly 8 percent increase in job growth from 2007 to 2015, jumping from 55,000 to 75,000.

But, they also found that among a large concentration of University City employees, there was a low transit usage.

“That was an indication to us that there was potential for new riders to support that addition of operating expenses…That trend of employment is not going to plateau or decline anytime soon,” Davidson said. “So, it’s really imperative of the transit authority to make sure we have additional resources to meet that demand in place.”

She says, when putting together an operating budget, a major consideration while implementing a new route or putting in additions to old routes is the assurance the bus will actually see riders.

According to SEPTA’s fiscal year 2019 annual service plan, the annual revenue for the route is $1,052,902, offsetting the $5.8 million allocated expenses to about $4.8 million.

Once research was complete, SEPTA started drafting designs of the route, which presented challenges, considering the Schuylkill slashes right through the ideal path.

“Something really interesting about these neighborhoods — if you think about 33rd and 34th streets — is it exists on both sides of the river,” Davidson said. “And when you don’t have a route that connects those neighborhoods that are so proximate through that street grid, you’re really interrupting that network of transit services.”

Davidson says, in South Philly, the first version proposed northbound routes on 26th Street and southbound routes on 27th Street, but gradually moved west toward its current proposal of traveling northbound on 30th and southbound on 29th.

In deciding the most ideal paths, SEPTA says it frequently communicated with residents most affected by the proposed route, especially those in Grays Ferry. Davidon stressed the community’s feedback is a major part of SEPTA’S route planning process.

“It’s interesting in Grays Ferry,” she said. “There’s a large group of people that really want this service, and the folks on 29th Street don’t want a bus on their block.”

While 29th Street was not included in the initial draft, this street provides access to the Grays Ferry Shopping Center, which Davidson says was requested by residents in Grays Ferry.

Image courtesy of SEPTA

However, during the public hearing, folks living on 29th and Tasker, voiced various concerns, including safety and environmental issues, about the 49 Bus’ travel down their block.

“I believe approximately 70 buses per day passing my house will severely impact quality of life for the residents of South 29th Street,” said resident Kathleen White.

She says the street is already dilapidated with potholes and gravel, arguing that a 30,000-pound bus will further ruin the street bed. White also noted the large buses will cause increased air and sound pollution and present safety concerns for children and seniors.

Davidson says all new SEPTA vehicles are hybrid or electric and that less pollution would be produced considering a decreased amount of car usage.

Jenn Carbin, also a resident of 29th Street and board member of Grays Ferry Community Council, said she supports the route but not its relocation to 29th Street.

“There’s a whole lifeblood of the community on 29th Street … It’s a very old street,” she said. “It’s sort of a main thoroughfare, as well as being old and delicate.”

Carbin said the community council supports the route, but not its current projection traveling so far south.

Residents in the same area, including Grays Ferry Civic Association Vice President Kyle Shenandoah, sees the flipside of Route 49, advocating that it will provide access to employment for residents in a neglected part of South Philly.

“A lot of people think (Forgotten Bottom) is a good name for our neighborhood, because people think they’re disconnected from the rest of the world,” he told SPR before the hearing. “It’s a spot in South Philly where they don’t fit in. I feel like this SEPTA route is going to solve that in one way or another … If you can’t create jobs, at least make it easier for people to get work.”

He says that while there may be some merit in moving the route to bigger streets, the whole premise of Route 49 is to grant isolated neighborhoods easier access to employment, health and transportation opportunities throughout the city.

Public input, included written testimony, will continue through May 30.

Once this period closes, a summarized report is submitted to the SEPTA board over the next month and a final decision, including any new revisions, will be made by June 21.

If it is approved, Davidson says Route 49 could be implemented as soon as the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019.

“We want to make sure this service works best for the community, because, in the end, it’s for them,” she said. “And, we want to make services that will be useful.”

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