Grassroots organizers mobilize for CH West

by Tom Beck
Posted 2/7/24

This time, the threat that the Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail line could be closed due to funding cuts and low ridership is not a fire drill.

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Grassroots organizers mobilize for CH West


Northwest residents have gotten the message loud and clear: this time, the threat that the Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail line could be closed due to funding cuts and low ridership is not a fire drill.

And they have sprung into action. 

Save the Train, a coalition of Northwest Philadelphia civic organizations is leading the charge to save the line, which is on the chopping block amid a $240 million SEPTA budget shortfall. They already held a rally Jan. 28 at Richard Allen Lane station and two more are in the works: one at Tulpehocken station on Feb. 14 and another at Chelten station on Feb. 24. They started a petition, which as of this time of writing, has more than 6,200 signatures. Some have even written songs about it. 

“That line is so important,” said Tom Judd, an artist and Germantown resident who collaborated on a song being written to serve as a kind of anthem for the effort. “It’s a lifeline to the city – we depend on it for our children to go to school and for us to get to work. Without it, our neighborhood would be a less appealing place to live. We’d also have a lot more cars, which would also be not so great.”

The threat of closure is not new. SEPTA, chronically short of funds, has put Chestnut Hill West on the list for closure many times in the past. But historically, the agency has found a way to keep it open – with fewer trains, perhaps, but open. 

But according to pretty much all the neighborhood’s elected officials, this time is different. On one recent Zoom call organized by the group, City Councilmember Cindy Bass told organizers “I would bet money that this is where they’re heading.”

And that’s a result that would “devastate” the community, West Mt. Airy Neighbors board member Anne Dicker said. 

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro is trying. He announced last week that he plans to include funding for public transportation in his upcoming budget proposal – which he is scheduled to present to legislators in Harrisburg on Tuesday, after the Local’s print deadline.

Dicker, who helped organize the rallies, said Shapiro’s move to close SEPTA’s potential $240 budget shortfall – which needs to be approved by the state legislature – was a good start. But it’s not the end all be all. 

“We’re working until that bill is signed on the governor’s desk for full funding,” she said. “Having [Shapiro] include SEPTA funding in the budget does not mean it actually makes it in the budget, and it doesn’t mean it makes it in time for the funding to be enacted.”

Tulpehocken station was chosen as the location for the Feb. 14 rally in part due to its proximity to Four Freedoms House, a senior living facility. Many seniors who live there often take the train to and from appointments in Center City, said Suzanne Ponsen, who heads West Central Germantown neighbors and is in the coalition. 

“It’s really a lifeline for them,” Ponsen said. “We want to support them as well as other seniors – and people of all ages – to encourage funding for SEPTA so that lines like the Chestnut Hill West will not be completely cut or limited in any way.”

And that goes for SEPTA’s other modes of transportation too, Ponsen said. 

“We have to continue to fight to get Gov. Shapiro to press the state Senate and get a new budget passed that will include adequate funding for SEPTA,” she said.

The other rally, planned for Feb. 24 at Chelten Station, will be held at a to-be-determined time.

“Right now it’s very important to keep this issue on people’s minds so they don’t forget about it,” said Ed Robinson, who’s organizing that rally. “I want this to be a chance to pull our local community, the Germantown community, together to really support this funding effort.” (Full disclosure, Ed Robinson is the husband of Chestnut Hill/Mt. Airy Local editor Carla Robinson.)

Shapiro’s 2024-25 budget proposal will incorporate a 1.75% increase in the state’s funding for public transit, which should generate $282.8 million for public transportation agencies in Pennsylvania, including SEPTA. 

“SEPTA has presented plans to address safety and cleanliness throughout their system, and county officials have entertained a willingness to step up to the plate and increase their support,” Shapiro said in his press release. “As a result, my administration is prepared to make a major investment in SEPTA.”

SEPTA’s federal pandemic aid, which had largely been keeping it afloat financially, is scheduled to run out on July 1, which is also when the state’s new budget is due and the fiscal year starts. However, last year’s budget didn’t get passed until December due to a stalemate between Senate Republicans and House Democrats. 

Dicker thinks increasing ridership on SEPTA is necessary for it to sustain over the long term. For that reason, permanently increasing ridership is another goal of the rallies.

“We absolutely have to get ridership up,” she said. “We want people to switch from using a car to using a train.”

If SEPTA fails to close its budget gap, it would almost certainly result in a series of service cuts and fare increases for the transit agency. That would lead to decreased ridership, a process known in the industry as a “death spiral,” said SEPTA’s CEO and General Manager Leslie Richards. 

SEPTA’s Chief Communications Officer Bill Webster, told the Local earlier this month that “nothing has been decided” in terms of what could be cut. But he did say that the transit agency would be looking at a 20% cut in service on all modes – not just Regional Rail, but buses, trolleys and the subway – if the funding isn’t procured.