Built Environment, Development, Transit

The case for better connectivity to University City through NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line

I’ve had this article sitting in my drafts folder for the past five months. Given the lack of interest in the subject on the part of NJ Transit, whenever I sit down to write it, I feel a little bit like I’m screaming into the void. But this morning I finally gathered the motivation to get it done after seeing Jake Blumgart’s tweet linking to an article from the Atlantic City Press that essentially equates the city’s declining fortunes with the fact that fewer people are taking the train line. If you think of the line as simply as a train that gets people to and from the struggling shore town, then it makes sense. With fewer attractions and jobs, there are fewer people to pull from as a potential customer base for the service. But that would be thinking too one-dimensionally. To understand the potential this line has for serving South Jersey, you have to rather turn your attention to what’s at the other end of the line: the white-hot job market being built in University City, Philadelphia, which hosts the line’s northernmost stop at 30th Street Station.

Last November, the University City District released a report detailing the immense growth the neighborhood is seeing. Among the good news was “new commercial and residential developments in the works, including the 3.0 University Place office building and the apartments planned at 3601 Market St.” and a “milestone of 75,000 jobs in the University City area alone, a figure aided in no small part by the presence of Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Sciences.” It goes on to mention the nearly 30 real estate projects underway in the neighborhood and $1 billion University City Science Center expansion. Its office vacancy rate of 2% is the lowest in the entire region. And this report came out even before Drexel released its ambitious plans to partially cap the rail yards adjacent to its school and build an entirely new mixed use development over the next several decades.  Suffice to to say, University City is going to be hot for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for us? Well, if you live in South Jersey and work in West Philadelphia, you have two options. You can drive to work along either I-676 or I-76, two extremely congested highways. Or you can take PATCO to the Market-Frankford Line, which honestly isn’t a bad option. But the PATCO line only threads through a few towns; at the point where someone is driving 15 minutes to get to a station, they might justify just driving in entirely to themselves, increasing traffic, congestion, and general commute torture. Or they might decide to move out of New Jersey altogether, which is bad for the state. This is where an improved Atlantic City Line might come into play. I foresee several options for improving the line to where it would provide decent, reliable service to and from that super hot job market in West Philadelphia.

Better serve the end of the line that’s booming

If Atlantic City is failing, Philadelphia is very much not. So why not increase service along the end of the corridor that could use it? What this means is increasing the number of trains running between Philadelphia and Hammonton. It would be reasonable to say that Hammonton, located halfway between the city and the shore and with a 59 minute ride time from 30th Street Station, is perhaps the eastern edge of the reasonable daily commuting distance. (Anecdotally speaking, I personally know people who commute from there to Philadelphia every day.) As such, inserting shorter-running trains into the schedule during the current unacceptably-long 2 hour schedule gaps would increase the utility of the line for people going to and from Philadelphia, by far the larger job and culture center of the line’s two termini. Nearly everyone with an interest in transit advocacy understands that frequency is freedom, and that if people can rely on a regular schedule with reasonable, sensible headways, a line will prosper. Inserting trains into the current gaps starts moving you in that direction.

Remove the obstacles to speedier service

As it stands, the line doesn’t exactly run quickly. The time between Cherry Hill and Philadelphia, not a far distance, is currently about 32 minutes. Quicker only than taking a local bus, that time is far too long for rail service. Whether improving that involves track rehabilitation or scheduling improvements, that number has to come down for the line to be considered more convenient than driving. Beyond track improvements, the fact that the line is fully diesel-powered line also hurts its ability to move quickly. As such, it’s a much slower running line than its electrified cousins to the north. Frequent and fast are the two factors that guarantee ridership, so attacking the line’s inefficiencies on those two fronts would be the most important things to do to improve its utility.

Create a larger potential passenger base

With no stops between Lindenwold (where it provides a transfer to the PATCO High Speed Line) and Cherry Hill, the line runs through a part of the most densely-populated part of South Jersey without stopping. One of the suggestions for creating a larger pool of potential riders is to add a station at the Woodcrest park and ride station, where the line parallels the PATCO tracks, a move that would also act to create another useful transfer point. Putting a new station in the middle of the highly populated southern Cherry Hill/western Voorhees/Route 30 corridor area would add a lot of people to the line’s customer base. On the Pennsylvania side, I believe it to be possible to extend the line down to the Airport, which opens up an entire other realm of usefulness. The only way to get to the airport for the vast majority of South Jerseyans right now is to drive there and park your car. But if you park there for long enough, it becomes more expensive than taking public transportation, even if you make the connection at Market East/Jefferson Station to SEPTA’s Airport Line. Bringing the Atlantic City Line to the airport would give South Jersey a one-seat ride to the airport, which would be a huge improvement in service to a regional transportation asset for our part of the state. If you’ve ever been on NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor Line, you’ve seen people taking the train to and from Newark International Airport. It would be an immediate boost to ridership if the Atlantic City Line went to Philadelphia International.

Let people know the line exists

What may be the least expensive option might also be the most useful one in the short term. As it stands today, there are essentially no advertisements for the train line. When I wrote an article a few years back about taking the train down the shore, I had so many comments from people who had no idea the train even existed. Even if you imagine the train to be oriented toward Atlantic City and not Philadelphia, advertising the line’s existence would be a great way offer people an alternative to the insane parking fees (think $50 and in some cases during concerts, $100) that some casinos have been charging lately. From a marketing perspective, it’s hard to believe NJ Transit wouldn’t want to capitalize on that price gouging to attract new customers.

These are just a few ideas that’ve been rattling around my brain for a few years now. It depresses me that NJ Transit lets this line decline without seriously considering doing anything to make it more useful for our region. Actually, it’s also kind of confusing. They spent money to build the Pennsauken Transportation Center to provide a transfer between the Riverline and the Atlantic City Line, but what good is a transfer to a train that only comes every 2+ hours? If you really want to improve the line, you need to make it fast, frequent, and reliable. And it wouldn’t be just for the exercise. It would mean improved prosperity for South Jersey to have quicker, simpler access to a hot Philadelphia neighborhood that’s only going to grow jobs in the coming decades.