Opinion | Conshohocken’s Borough Council President stuck in pre-pandemic thinking in regards to the SEPTA parking garage. Calls for SEPTA to stop considering options and build the garage

As MoreThanTheCurve.com has reported, the parking garage SEPTA (along with PennDOT) had planned to construct on Conshohocken’s riverfront was recently tabled by SEPTA’s board in April to “provide more time for SEPTA staff to provide further data and other information to the Board.” The new parking garage and surface area would increase the available number of parking spaces by just over 400 spaces.

This action came after transit activists and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board questioned the parking garage’s high price tag ($48 million or $117,878 per spot) and the need compared to other areas they felt SEPTA should be focusing its limited dollars on. MoreThanTheCurve.com also asked similar questions.

It is important to note that this garage is to be partially being funded by PennDOT, which plans to encourage drivers on the Schuylkill Expressway through electronic signage to exit the highway, cross the Matsonford Bridge, park in the new garage, and take the train to their destination. To top it off, they called this entire process “Smart” so challenging that concept can only be considered dumb.

Since the April meeting of SEPTA, we have not heard anything new about this until this past week, when Conshohocken’s Borough Council President spoke during a meeting of SEPTA’s board and admonished SEPTA for exploring different options and not including the borough in these discussions. She then called for SEPTA to go through with constructing the parking garage.

Below is the transcript of Leonard’s statement (note that the transcript was incoherent in a few spots, and we did very lightly editing in places to make it clear). These issues were not Leonard’s fault. You can watch the video here.

Transcript of Conshohocken’s Borough Council President Colleen Leonard
All Text with a Light Blue Background is the Transcript as posted by SEPTA

Colleen, you’re on. Yep. I can give my comment now we’re ready. Okay. Dear Chairman, Dan and members of the SEPTA Board, the Borough of Conshohocken had conference call with SEPTA staff and representatives from PennDOT and the DVRPC to discuss SEPTA’s contract and parking garage on Wednesday, June 14th, 2023.

During the call, the borough was informed for the first time that SEPTA’s board was evaluating alternative options to the previously approved parking garage. Additionally, the borrow [borough] was provided with a summary of comments received that resulted in SEPTA’s Hearing Examiner recommending that the board have additional discussions regarding the project.

It is important to note that at no point was the borough consulted on the development of these alternative options. Additionally, the borough was never formally included in any conversation to discuss negative comments received regarding the parking garage project.

Having been a partner receptive now for over five years on both the train station and the parking garage projects, the borough would’ve expected to be included in these discussions. With that being said, the borough offers the following response to the summary of comments that resulted its decision to table the awarding of construction contracts for the parking garage at its April board meeting.

We hope that the following reasons and rationale in support of the Garage Project will position the board so that a decision to approve the construction bids and begin the construction of the SEPTA parking garage is not only the right decision, but the only decision reasons to approve the parking garage construction contracts and begin constructed project funding.

SEPTA received comments that the capital fund should be earmarked and utilized for urban investment in public transportation infrastructure such as trolley, subway, and bus service improvements. However, as SEPTA is aware, the majority of the funding for the project is coming from sources other than SEPTA, such as PennDOT and the DVRPC (Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission).

These comments therefore lack practical relevance to the question of whether to proceed with the parking garage. SEPTA’s 180 degree course reversal on the basis of the receipt of negative comments regarding SEPTA’s use of capital funds rather than seeking input from the true stakeholders in this project (The Borough of Conshohocken and PennDOT and the DVRPC) and it is concerning and seems reactionary as opposed to strategic, innovative and forward thinking.

For fiscal responsibility, SEPTA has already spent roughly $13.1 million on a parking garage project that is already 30% of the total project budget. More importantly, roughly $9.9 million of that $13.1 million already spent are PennDOT funds as disclosed on the June 14 conference call, it’s highly probable that SEPTA will need to pay back those funds if the project is canceled or carried out in an alternative fashion. In that scenario, SEPTA will have spent roughly 23 million in public monies on a project with no tangible result. Abandonment of the garage project resulting in a waste of $23 million is fiscally irresponsible and a complete waste of public resources, time and money.

The proposed alternative first option is a surface parking lot. While SEPTA’s alternative option is better than nothing for the Borough of Conshohocken, SEPTA almost certainly will lose a funding source from its current partner.

Since the scope of the project is changing as a practical matter, then a surface parking lot will cost SEPTA roughly the same price per parking spot as the parking garage. Additionally, the scope of the project in this way will push the project timeline out for at least another few years.

Given the safety issues of the current SEPTA station in Conshohocken. Delay is a major issue and should not be ignored by SEPTA.

The zoning in Conshohocken Borough does not permit multifamily development on this site.

The borough has gone under extensive emergency management review of multi development [omit development] family development already and approved along the lines of borough’s riverfront, and is determined that the borough cannot sustain additional multi-family development in that area.

The borough will not engage in any discussion regarding zoning amendments or variances that SEPTA would need to develop the property for multi-family residential in the future.

The last line needs to be addressed. Leonard and the borough council do have absolute authority when it comes to zoning amendments. However, while they can decide to object to an applicant seeking a zoning variance, they play no role in that process. Once an application is submitted for a variance, it must legally be considered by the zoning hearing board, which determines whether or not to grant the request. Leonard or the borough council interfering with the right to seek zoning relief would be illegal.

Back to Leonard’s comments:

The second proposed option offered by SEPTA is to lease an existing parking garage. There is no parking available to lease within the vicinity of the train station. The borough frequently discusses parking availability with its property owners and its [this] option is entirely unrealistic. More importantly, accessibility would be a major issue for SEPTA even if you were able to secure a parking lease given the location of the parking garages in proximity to the train station. The originally planned parking garage is approved and shovel ready and is the right decision for all parties involved.

We would be happy to share the comments the borough receives on a regular basis, which illustrates the unsafe parking conditions that SEPTA has created at the country Conshohocken Station with its current parking.

The only reason the borough has been able to maintain and manage these complaints and concerns is because up until last week, we were able to explain that SEPTA will be providing ample parking to serve the demand that exists at this train station on a daily basis. In the immediate future with the construction of the parking garage, the land acquisition SEPTA purchase, and now owns the land that the parking parking garage project was built.

If SEPTA is not going to utilize the land for sufficient parking to serve the train station, then what is the plan for the use of the land? The borough will not permit SEPTA utilize this land as a lay down area for other regional construction projects. Such use is not permitted under the borough zoning ordinance or floodplain regulations. As you know, the land is in a flood zone. SEPTA spent 9.9 million on the acquisition of the land. The borough’s expectation is that SEPTA will build the needed parking as collaboratory discussed and agreed upon as partners roughly five years ago.

The recent development in Conshohocken was predicated on a ready access to and use of alternative modes of transportation. For example, the entire AmerisourceBergen Unified development project was approved based on TOD transit-oriented development plan. The borough did what everyone asked it to do. It made strategic decisions to become the corporate and employment hub in Montgomery County. SEPTA was a key stakeholder in those conversations and during many of those conversations, the issue of inadequate parking at the Conshohocken train station was raised with consistent promises from SEPTA that more parking was coming.

It is now time for SEPTA to follow through with the promises they made to the Borough, County, and most importantly, the developers in those businesses that chose to remain in the southeastern Pennsylvania.

SEPTA promised them a new modern efficient train station. A parking garage sufficient to serve that station. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent based around a new SEPTA station and garage. From the perspective of the these developers, businesses and employees and the borough residents, it is a clear expectation that a new station and new parking garage will be complete, will be built and complete within the next 18 to 24 months.

It is time for SEPTA to uphold its end of the bargain, complete the train station and garage projects and be an example for the future development of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Show the world that developments focused around mass transit work.

Don’t be the entity that illustrates that development focused on mass transit is a mistake. Be the future. An entity moving forward with innovative thinking

Time to interject again. No one is questioning the new and improved station. But most importantly, anyone parking at the station is LEAVING Conshohocken to go to work, etc. The parking garage would play no role in serving commuters coming to work in Conshohocken. In fact, the Borough of Conshohocken requires developers to construct parking garages for that expressed purpose. The SEPTA parking garage is irrelevant to Conshohocken’s employers.

Back to Leonard’s comments:

There can be no serious debate that refusing to build a parking garage will negatively impact impact the borough neighborhood streets. The current parking for 110 spaces is insufficient and a safety issue for the riders parking throughout the borough streets and in private parking for bur bur developments. Today, the borough routinely receives resident complaints and concerns about the same.

While the borough has viewed this as a problem that we be solved by the upcoming parking garage project, if SEPTA that does not build the garage, the borough and the surrounding developers will be forced to take necessary action to prohibit the encroachment of SEPTA computers into the borough’s. neighborhoods, which already contains extremely strained parking.

Here is where we really take issue with Leonard’s comments. If there is a current issue in regards to parking at the train station, why has the borough blocked off the parking lot (next to Outbound Station) it has owned since May 2022?

This borough-owned lot has at least 20 spaces and could potentially have more if striped differently. The current configuration of the SEPTA lot allows for 110 spaces. Leonard and the borough could add 20 to 30 more spaces near the train station and help solve the issue Leonard claims is negatively impacting residents. While they do eventually plan to make this parking lot a park, why aren’t they utilizing it for parking in the meantime?

Back to Leonard’s comments:

These necessary restrictions will have a lasting impact on the future of transit in Conshohocken and the entire Manayunk-Noristown line. During our initial meeting we were informed that this line was to transition into a line that had more train cars and a higher frequency of trains.

The goal was not only to fix the insufficient parking in Conshohocken, but make Conshohocken Station available for commuters from all over southeastern PA because ample parking would be available.

This was the goal from the very beginning in our partnership. The borough signed on to that plan and we met our obligation there. Changing the plan now does not make sense for the immediate future or the future of train ridership along the Manayunk-Norristown line. Ironically, the collapse of I-95 serves as a perfect example as to why the parking garage structure should be improved.

Imagine what would happen if there was a similar occurrence on I 95 (we believe she meant I-76 here). We urge you to be the forward thinking and strategic decision makers who originally had the foresight to approve this garage project.

Investing in the Garage Project is a deliberate and strategic hedge against major infrastructure issues happening on I-76. Having adequate and extra parking helps SEPTA to have resiliency along its transit mediums.

The current 110 parking spaces do not work and will not work in the future. Overbuilding slightly now at today’s cost is the right decision to make and an opportunity to build infrastructure at a much cheaper cost than doing it in the future. A small group of individuals are criticizing your decision. Imagine the level of criticism you’ll receive when you could have built appropriate parking and chose not to solely based on 100 negative comments. For the reasons I listed above, we implore you to be the officials who aren’t afraid to make the hard decisions. This parking garage project is the right decision, not just for Conshohocken, but more importantly for SEPTA.

The borough more than anyone understands how individuals oppose growth. However, the borough also understands the benefits of growth. Even when faced with opposition, some individuals are shortsighted and can’t see the bigger picture.

It is our job as public officials to make the right decisions even when they’re hard decisions. We ask that you approve the construction bids and start construction on the promised garage project.

We challenge you to make this strategic forward thinking decision on this matter. Pulling this project or exploring alternative options is the easy way out. We remind you that noteworthy matters and are never easy. [the last line was transcribed correctly, not sure what was meant]

Thank you for your time and consideration. We look forward to continuing our partnership with SEPTA and working collaboratively to ensure that both SEPTA train station and garage projects are immensely successful. Thank you for your time.

In regard to transit-oriented development or TOD, the argument from transit activists is that the money for the garage could be better spent and that building the garage is actually anti-transit-oriented development. They do not want garages built next to train stations, they want high-density housing and offices built around stations. They want to reduce cars, not build parking garages to service cars. They want everyone to live near transit hubs. They want you walking, biking, or taking a bus to the train.

SEPTA – Manayunk-Norristown Line – Service Levels

Leonard’s argument is also very February 2020sh (pre-pandemic). All the talk of “forward-thinking” doesn’t fly because “forward-thinking” in June of 2023 is taking into account how work-from-home, hybrid work, and other impacts from the pandemic, have changed society and especially how people work and commute.

The graph above is from SEPTA and shows that as of April 2023, the Manayunk-Norristown line is at 81% of its pre-pandemic level service level. As you can see there hasn’t been any significant change between April 2022 and April 2023. If you look further, there has been no change to the line’s service level (except when it wasn’t operating) since March of 2020 (the start of the pandemic).

Prior to the pandemic, we would agree with Leonard about the lack of interest from local building/garage owners and not wanting to lease available spaces within the existing garages (at least at the price SEPTA was willing to pay). We actually approached the person who previously owned the lot adjacent to Outbound Station and tried to work out an agreement to allow us to market and rent the spaces to commuters. He wouldn’t agree. He had it blocked off, just as the borough does today. Something easy and obvious wasn’t achievable.

However, again, its a new world. While there are still solid occupancy rates (meaning they are leased) in Conshohocken’s office buildings, the actual use of that space by workers is down. So that means there are a lot more empty parking spaces in the garages. Why wouldn’t they want to make money on unused assets?

There is also a bigger issue on how Leonard views parking. If, as we believe, there is now an over abundance of parking in total along the river, it is time to thing how best to amend the zoning code to encourage redevelop of portions of the vast parking lots and bring smaller infill development between the existing large buildings. Or, the developers/property owners could be incentivized to return it to open or recreation space with the ability to turn it back into parking if ever needed.

Or, Conshohocken could just stick with a plan from 2018 and build a big parking garage.

Let us know what you think in the comments (all 100 of you).