Tuesday, April 23, 2019

All Aboard: Return of Rail Meeting Draws Crowd

Photo by Evan Brandt
As if on cue, just as people gathered in Phoenixville's former train station for a meeting about returning passenger rail to the tracks now owned and occupied by the Norfolk Southern freight line, one of its engines rumbled passed the station pulling a short line of freight and oil cars.

Ultimately, any great public works project comes to two essential questions: how much will it cost? And how do we pay for it?

When it comes to returning passenger rail to Phoenixville, the answers to those questions seem to be "less than you think it might" and "it will pay for itself."

At a Town Hall-style meeting held Monday at Columbia Station, Phoenixville's old train station re-
A crowd of about 70 gathers for last night's Town Hall meeting.
imagined as a wedding venue, members of the Mayor's Task Force on Rail Transportation explained to about 70 people-in-person and roughly 3,700 watching on-line, how the financing for the project would work.

The idea is to use something called "tax-increment financing." The idea is to take advantage of the increase in property values when a commuter rail station is built and service provided.

For example, a study showed that property within three-quarters of a mile of the Paoli train station is worth an additional $16,800 because of that proximity.

Undeveloped properties will see an increase in value and if the members of the task force can convince taxing bodies -- municipalities, school districts and counties -- to forgo banking the increased tax revenue after the property is developed for a period of years in order to pay off a bond, that bond can be used to build the infrastructure needed to bring the train.

Here's part of the video show last night to explain how it works: (Listen closely, the sound is not great.)

Although exact locations for rail stations are not yet determined,
this map gives an idea of how the TRID districts would work.
A new state law allows for the creation of something called a Transportation Revitalization Investment District, or TRID within a three-quarter-mile radius of a new rail station.

The catch is two-fold; first getting all the municipalities to sign off and forgo increased tax revenues for a time; and second, the timing of the new development, which has to happen in the immediate wake of the new station.

The beauty of the plan, other than the precise timing required, is that it increases property values without increasing anyone's taxes except for the newly developed properties.

This engine can run on both electrified and non-electrified rail.
Because the project does not require the laying of any new track, merely the construction of new rail stations and large, large parking lots, the cost is comparatively small, according to developer Manny DeMutis -- about $111 million.

Key to this working is a new piece of technology, an engine that can run on electrified systems, as the SEPTA regional rails are from Norristown to Philadelphia; and on non-electrified rail, as is the case from Norristown to Phoenixville.
The projected population of the region is expected to keep rising.

As the region grows, traffic on Route 422 will grow ever more intolerable and returning rail service to Phoenixville is the best way to maintain momentum on the borough's revitalization said Mayor Peter Urscheler.

It will also allow that economic revitalization to improve quality of life for residents at all income levels, said Marian Moskowitz, who oversaw the Franklin Commons project.

In addition to the fact that studies show $10 million in capital improvements to the passenger rail system will generate $30 million in increased business sale, a mile of rail travel is 10 times safer than traveling that mile in a car, said Urscheler.

Here are the mayor's closing remarks.

Next on the To Do List is to expand the task force beyond Phoenixiville Borough to the surrounding municipalities and as such, it will now be called Steel City Rail.

"If we do this, it will be the greatest thing we ever do," said DeMutis. "Every endeavor worth doing has challenges, and this one has a lot, but it's important that we try."

"We've come a long way," said Ursheler, "And we recognize that we still have a long way to go.

Here are the Tweets from the meeting:

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