After a few years of debate, SEPTA voted to implement the 7-mile trip, which will undergo an experimental basis in Feb 2019.
After a three-and-a-half year discourse surrounding SEPTA Bus Route 49, the transportation authority voted last week to implement the route during its 2019 Fiscal Year Annual Service Plan, which proposes 15 new or amended routes throughout Southeast Pennsylvania.
After the launch of SEPTA’S Boulevard Direct Northeast Philadelphia last year, Route 49 is the second major enhancement to the bus network since 2017.
Feedback from the community led to various versions of the seven-mile route. But the current version, which will start installation in the winter, reaches as far north as Strawberry Mansion, weaving throughout major urban districts, including University City and Center City West, eventually stretching all the way south to Grays Ferry, stretching a total of seven miles near the Schuylkill River.
“It’s a brand new route, which is exciting for us,” SEPTA’s Chief Service Planning Officer Charles Webb told SPR following the hearing. “So, I’m thrilled we’re able to finally implement it, because, again, we’re very optimistic that’s it’s going to be a success.”
Although there’ve been a few drafts, Route 49, which plans to run seven days a week, including a nearly 3,000 established ridership every weekday, retains its primary purpose — to provide easier access to the health, employment and transportation resources in University City.
Before the route is officially finalized, SEPTA plans to conduct a one-year experimental basis beginning in February 2019, which the city has requested, according to Webb.
“The experiment gives you a flexibility to make any changes you need to do within that year before it’s etched in stone at the end of the year,” Webb said.
Through February 2020, SEPTA will analyze ridership, routing, technical operations and other essentials before crafting a lasting system. Final decisions about the fate of the route will be made at the end of the trial, as Webb says it’s possible Route 49 could be made permanent, receive changes or be discontinued altogether depending upon results of the experiment.
While many factors will be evaluated, Webb says the chief measure of success is ridership.
Experimentation will focus on the northern end of the route in Strawberry Mansion since both the city and community members voiced concerns about the layover in that area, as Webb says the loop itself is constrained and requires construction.
However, similar construction is not needed at the terminal point at the route’s southern end in Grays Ferry. During the initial run through of the route, there weren’t many changes noted that were necessary in that region, he says, particularly in terms of parking registration.
“We wanna do this right … you want to make sure everything is done really nice and tidying up before we go in,” Webb said.
For SEPTA, it was key to collaborate with the several communities that will be influenced by the bus, as, at May’s public hearing, residents voiced various concerns, including safety and environmental issues, about the 49 bus’ travel down their blocks.
Residents specifically in the Grays Ferry area were worried that dilapidated streets riddled potholes and gravel would further be damaged by 30,000-pound buses. Members of the public also noted the buses could cause increased air and sound pollution and present safety concerns for children and seniors.
Webb says such concerns will be monitored during the experimental basis.
However, during this week’s hearing, residents voiced generally positive opinions about the route, saying it would actually improve safety concerns.
“I can’t focus enough on how dangerous these roads are to walk across,” said Grays Ferry Civic Association Vice President Kyle Shenandoah during the hearing. “And this bus route, I feel is the safest way in order for us to get from South Philadelphia to University City.”
Shenandoah presented the SEPTA board with a petition, including more than 340 signatures from South Philly residents who were in favor of the route, arguing this was an accurate representation of the community.
He mentioned that, currently, despite being able to see University City from Grays Ferry, it is not possible to get from one location to another without people either braving a walk over Grays Ferry Avenue Bridge or taking a bus to Center City followed by a train trip to West Philly.
“I think this is a barrier for a lot of people who are looking for work,” Shenandoah said. “This is a barrier for people looking for health resources.”
Webb stressed that SEPTA is sensitive to community concerns about the route, as both positive and negative conjectures about the route will be evaluated and considered during the experimental trial next year.
“We don’t do a lot of new routes at SEPTA,” Webb said. “So, we want to make sure something like this, especially since we put all this work into it — the communities and the elected officials — that we have some flexibility, in case we start running it and something really isn’t working … this enables you to really make the change.”