One of Philadelphia’s knottiest traffic snarls — located at the base of Roxborough-Manayunk — is about to get dramatically untangled in an incredibly clever way that improves the quality of life for motorists, public transit users, even trail hikers, bikers and joggers. Since the City of Philadelphia is driving this great project, it is especially important we tell you.
The tangle is that Gordian knot where Manayunk’s Main Street collides with Ridge Avenue in front of the Wissahickon Transit Center, where buses turning into and out of the center routinely trap traffic all around it. Just beyond this, Lincoln Drive swoops into Kelly Drive with swirling ramps to everywhere including City Avenue.
That’s five of the city’s most vital streets kissing within like 1,000 feet of each other, with a major public transit center sandwiched between. In addition, the Wissahickon Station of the Manayunk-Norristown Line, north of Ridge Avenue, allows people to walk to the transit center for a bus to almost anywhere, meaning a stream of pedestrians cross Ridge at this crazy nexus.
Oh, and the Wissahickon Creek slides underneath all this, with the Schuylkill River Trail, growing in popularity, shunting bikers onto Ridge Avenue and then for a big stretch of Main Street. Across uber-busy Ridge Avenue from the transit center is a major entrance to the Wissahickon’s massive trail system, and behind the transit center is the venerable Philadelphia Canoe Club.
Nowhere in Philadelphia, I don’t think, are so many transit sardines — foot, car, bus, train, bike and canoe — packed into a tighter can.
Two Wednesdays ago, more than 100 people listened to city planners pitch their plan for a radical re-envisioning of this stretch of road, where the transit center moves out of the way, adds turning lanes on Ridge Avenue and allows for a new bridge across the Wissahickon to extend the Schuylkill River Trail into Manayunk.
“It was a great turnout,” said Matt Wysong, the North/Northwest senior planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, leader of this effort who has been heavily involved in Roxborough-Manayunk planning concerns. “And it was good mix of people, about 40 percent from the Wissahickon neighborhood, 40 percent from the Northwest outside of Wissahickon and 20 percent from the rest of the region. There were avid cyclists, transit advocates and people concerned about neighborhood development.”
The plan hinges on SEPTA, which successfully purchased the Restaurant Depot site next door, which it will demolish to build a new transit center deeper into the site, allowing for buses to turn more easily in and out.
“SEPTA is also going to do improvements to Ridge Avenue,” said Wysong, “like a dedicated turn lane and improvements to signals.”
For me, the environmental advocate who loves the Circuit Trails network growing throughout the region, one of the biggest benefits is the extension of the Schuylkill River Trail, which currently comes out of Center City alongside Kelly Drive, then is unceremoniously shunted alongside one of Kelly Drive’s ramps onto Ridge Avenue. To fulfill the dream of the River Trail continuing seamlessly through Manayunk, one of the obstacles has long been the Wissahickon Creek, which the River Trail cannot yet jump.
In this plan, a new bridge is constructed across existing footings, allowing River Trail hikers and bikers to hug the river and cross the creek above the canoe club, then come back to the river to walk below the new transit center along the Schuylkill, skirting the flank of the movie theater parking lot.
But then something really cool happens. The new trail will meet the end of the movie theater parking lot at the foot of the newly reopened Pencoyd Bridge, once a railroad bridge into the Pencoyd Iron Works, now a pedestrian and car bridge for an apartment complex across the river.
Suddenly, one can opt to cross the Schuylkill into Bala Cynwyd and hike along the Lower Merion side the river, and then circle back into Manayunk by crossing the high Manayunk Bridge.
Kay Sykora, former head of the Manayunk Development Corp. and longtime River Trail champion, is “absolutely happy with this, as this crossing has been a challenging connection. The bridge was one of MDC’s very first projects with the first major grant in 1991. By the time we were ready to build, flooding and environmental issues had changed the proposed bridge site, and funding was inadequate.
“Also,” Sykora continued, “this site was considered by the state to be the most dangerous trail situation in Pennsylvania. We were so sure this would be one of the first projects finished, but the complexity of ownership, getting across the Wissahickon and environmental issues held this project back. The larger commitment to biking and the multitude of groups advocating for this has kept this project front and center in recent years.”
Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition and a leader of the Circuit Trail Network, says, “We are very excited and can’t wait for this new and long-awaited Circuit Trail segment to open as soon as possible. The existing bus depot may get converted into a trailhead and if bicycle rentals are provided, I envision people could take a bus or train to the Wissahickon Transportation Station, rent a bike and spend all day in the Wissahickon, along the River Trail in Philadelphia or on the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Lower Merion, all on Circuit Trails.”
Over a whole lot of years, SEPTA and several city agencies — Planning, Parks and Rec, Streets — worked together with advocacy groups and civic associations to create a win-win plan where everyone benefits. And the Schuylkill River Trail takes a giant leap forward.
Congratulations to all involved, and may the process used here unfold at many other sites across the city where other knots await their untangling.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at email@example.com.