Last week, I celebrated the death of the LaGuardia AirTrain, a $2 billion-and-counting airport connector which would not save anyone any time. I referred to it as “the worst transit project in the U.S.” Shortly afterwards, a reader emailed me to ask if I had heard of the King of Prussia extension in Philadelphia, a four-mile rail extension to connect Philadelphia to a suburban mall with a projected daily ridership of just 9,700 people and a price tag of $2 billion, because he thought it was the worst transit project in the U.S. Well, it is now dead, too.
On Friday, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority announced it is ceasing construction of the bad transportation project because the Federal Transit Administration did not include the project in the funding grants it recently allocated, presumably because it is a bad project. The news was first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which included the astounding revelation that the project costs had increased to more than $3 billion. That comes to approximately $309,000 per daily rider, a rate of return several orders of magnitude higher than what transportation experts generally regard as worth investing in.
“SEPTA’s capital budget has been underfunded for decades. This has left the Authority with significantly fewer resources than peer agencies to pursue system expansion while also addressing critical infrastructure needs,” SEPTA General Manager and CEO Leslie S. Richards said in a statement. “With the funding we have currently, SEPTA must prioritize essential infrastructure work and safety and security improvements to maximize the reliability and effectiveness of our aging system.”
SEPTA had already invested $390 million on the extension, money that could have been spent on any number of other important needs in the aging system. (The Broad Street Line, for example, sports 40-year-old rolling stock resembling something out of an ‘80s science fiction movie set in a grim, dark near future.) A favorite idea among Philadelphians is a subway along Roosevelt Boulevard connecting far northeast Philadelphia to Center City, an idea that’s been around for more than a century. The problem with this plan is that it does nothing for the suburban-dominated SEPTA board, which has historically been hesitant to invest in the city’s transit expansion even though most of SEPTA’s ridership is in Philadelphia—a common problem with regional transit agencies across the U.S.
Similar to the news of the LaGuardia AirTrain’s cancellation, this is a bittersweet occasion—celebrate the death of an epically bad transit project, but also recognize it is unlikely to prevent the agencies in question from repeating the same mistakes in the near future.