The Goldmine Underfoot: PATCO, the Haddon Avenue Corridor & Transit Oriented Development in South Jersey
On Monday, chief executive of the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) John Hanson confirmed what most riders who had examined the authority's two-year rehabilitation program for the PATCO Highspeed line tracks on the Ben Franklin Bridge already knew: PATCO was going to lose riders as the result of the 24/7 single-tracking program planned for the summer; quite a lot, in fact. According to DRPA's estimates, a total of 300,000 riders (really unique rides) are likely to be lost as the result of track work. To put that into perspective, PATCO's annual ridership comes out to roughly 10 million riders, suggesting a 3% drop with DRPA's likely liberal ridership drop estimate.
While this drop is concerning, particularly given PATCO's recent ridership declines after a decade of growth, and the proposed schedules are likely to cause a lot of pain for commuters, it is clear that this track work needs to be done in order to keep the system of the state of good repair. The bigger, long-term question is how PATCO can bring back commuters who left and bring in new commuters to grow its ridership base. The solution is not necessarily to offer lower fares or invest in more marketing and customer service (although the latter would go a long way in soothing tensions), but rather to better integrate the transit line with the communities which it serves, yielding benefits for both the agency and the communities.
As Joseph pointed out in his recent article, the South Jersey, particularly around the PATCO corridor is reasonably dense and highly walkable. Strangely enough, though, the PATCO stations themselves are poorly integrated with their communities, favoring giant surface parking lots abutting 1950s walkable boroughs. No where is this more apparent than along the Haddon Avenue Corridor that links together Collingswood, Westmont (Haddon Township), and Haddonfield. The corridor is a three mile stretch of shops and houses and is a very attractive for bikers and walkers, yet the three PATCO stations along the corridor are almost hostile to interaction with the street. The vibrancy of downtown Haddonfield and Collingswood seems to wither and die as one approaches the station, hardly an appealing gateway for potential visitors from South Jersey or Philadelphia. Instead of acting as a means to knit together the various walkable communities along the line, the auto-oriented design of PATCO stations tends to make the transit line appear at odds with its surroundings, serving as an anachronistic reminder of the days of transit stations as park-and-ride hubs, rather than community cores.
This is not to say that Transit Oriented Development (TOD) has been entirely ignored by the DRPA. The agency commissioned a study in 2006 to examine the feasibility of redeveloping its parking lots in favor of mixed-use TOD and parking garages for park-and-ride commuters. While this report found that some stations could greatly benefit from such development, talk of PATCO TOD has since been tabled, likely due to the recession and the recent PATCO rehabilitation project.
TOD needs to be revisited. Beyond the aesthetic value of linking PATCO with its towns, there is a clear economic argument to be made for both the transit line and the communities that it serves. For PATCO, the increased density and development around stations would allow the transit line to capture additional choice riders and could provide the agency with an additional revenue stream through the redevelopment of existing parking lots, thereby acting as a rudimentary method of value capture-allowing a infrastructure provider to recoup some of the cost of providing a service by taxing those who are the primary beneficiaries. For communities, TOD offers a means to increase property values, jobs, & revenues, allowing transit-adjacent communities to profit off of the assets that they already have.
So where should we go from here? First, DRPA needs to start getting serious about TOD at PATCO stations. The aforementioned TOD from 2006 laid out the feasibility and costs associated with parking lot development at every station, meaning that the authority now has a foundation to begin real discussions with developers. Furthermore, private projects adjacent to PATCO stations, such as the Lumberyard development in Collingswood and the proposed (albeit flawed) Towne Center at Haddon, suggest that developers are keen on taking advantage of proximity to PATCO, even when it requires expensive brownfield remediation, and the impact of having DRPA's support behind TOD could be the impetus required to get other TOD projects along the Haddon Avenue Corridor, such as the Haddon Avenue Transit Village project in Camden, back on track. PATCO is too good of an asset for South Jersey to waste, why not reap its latent benefits by building a true TOD corridor along Haddon Avenue?