Philadelphia’s public transportation system features two subway lines, dozens of buses and several regional rail stops.
Meanwhile, a two-thirds -mile stretch of space, which includes a half-mile length of underground tunnel, sits empty and unused.
Byron Comati, director of strategic planning at SEPTA, said the organization hopes to use this space – which hasn’t been utilized since the mid-1980s.
Comati said SEPTA acquired the underground space in 1994 from Baldwin Locomotive, a commercial freight company that last used the tunnels to carry ink and paper to the Inquirer.
City Branch, which opens to street level at various points, has been sitting vacant for the last 30 years.
Comati said SEPTA and the Friends of The Rail Park organization have identified these tunnels as “an asset and a treasure.”
The tunnel runs from the east side of Broad Street through the Fairmount neighborhood and up toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an area currently lacking in quick underground transportation.
“We’re looking at a very different kind of project,” Comati said. “It’s very construction-heavy, it would require lots of engineering, but you could get a connection that doesn’t exist, currently.”
Comati said that many ideas for the tunnels have been entertained over the years, including a continued use of getting a large amount of resources into the city without having to fight traffic. But some new project ideas centered around tourism transportation are currently at the forefront.
One idea would be a collection of bus routes that would drop down below street level through the tunnels and back up again to evade traffic. This would be ideal for commuters or travelers from the Fairmount neighborhood to Center City and back, Comati said. The city of Pittsburgh currently has a similar function in its Light Rail line, also known as “The T.”
“This idea is something rather unique,” Comati said. “A bus could drop [below street level], shoot along without congestion or traffic lights and end up in the art museum area or in Center City.”
Comati also said there are advocates for a mixed-use trail, one that could be shared by pedestrians and bikers, as well as a proposed public transit system. He said that there are security concerns with this plan, and a lack of natural light to allow the proposed foliage and grass to grow, but also that it is a popular idea.
Betsy Mastaglio, senior transportation planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, agreed that a balance of a few uses is what people prefer when they talk about possible uses for City Branch.
While proposals have been made in the past, the DVRPC is currently completing a comprehensive planning study of the space and will eventually be able to decide which of the proposed plans is most likely to work for the future.
Mastaglio described the tunnels as “an investment in something that wouldn’t be competing with street level,” and a “cultural corridor” that would hit many of the institutions that line the parkway.
While there is still a great deal of time before any decisions are made, Comati said work on the project would not happen for another five to 10 years due to a lack of room in the city’s budget.
Comati said another part of the city is being considered for the project as well – the Reading Viaduct, a former railroad that now runs through the Callowhill neighborhood. SEPTA owns part of the passage.
Experts have compared the space as being similar to New York City’s High Line, except wider. Comati said this would allow for a trail with enough space to accommodate many uses at once, like a mixed-use park and transportation space.
“It is an incredible, flourishing asset,” he said. “It could unite the Center City District with Callowhill, which would be a very powerful, rejuvenating thing to happen to that part of the city.”
This idea has been in consideration for years. Comati said about three-fourths of City Branch has been evaluated, which could lead to the concept being completed in the near future.
Comati added that SEPTA has to consider these spaces as resources, and as projects that could give momentum to parts of the city that are currently lacking attention.
“It’s a very interesting project,” Comati said. “It opens up some opportunities for the city, and I hate to see opportunities not be taken.”
“Any city would kill to have a passageway through their city,” he added. “So to not use it begs the question – why not?””
Paige Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @By_paigegross