Today — June 2 — marks one year since the closure of the I-495 bridge. That closure spurned region-wide transportation chaos, especially for commuters traveling between Philadelphia and Wilmington. But it also stimulated some solid economic activity in downtown Wilmington.
“A lot of people decided that, rather than sit in gridlock for two hours at 5:00, they would stay in downtown Wilmington after work,” said David Curtis, whose petition to extend SEPTA train frequencies between Philadelphia and Wilmington last summer garnered 1,800 signatures and was (and continues to be) the source of real change in service.
“It was actually tremendously beneficial,” he said. “For a month or more, downtown Wilmington was really vibrant after 5:00. When you extend the trains, you give people more of an incentive to hang out in Wilmington.”
“Hanging out” means spending money. And all of that cash — whether it’s spent on dinner or drinks or a show at The Queen — gets injected into Wilmington’s economy.
“It’s tough to do that if you know that missing the next train means you have to wait two more hours, or if you know the last train leaves too early,” said Curtis. “I think [extending service] is going to open some doors I’m not even aware of yet.”
That’s because it’s incredibly difficult to gauge the benefits of a service that doesn’t exist yet. This past December, the Delaware Transit Corporation (DTC) added two additional weekday round-trip trains to Claymont and Wilmington (despite half of its budget being consumed by DART bus services). This coming December, DTC will extend two weekday trains, and possibly a third Saturday evening train — the result of a strong campaign from Curtis and others.
“Even after these planned upgrades go into effect later this year, there will still be six weekday trains, nine Saturday trains and seven Sunday trains that need to be extended to Claymont and Wilmington,” said Curtis, who just this past March rallied the support of over two dozen local businesses, all of which submitted letters of support to Delaware politicians and state agencies.
It seems Wilmington might soon find out what those benefits might be. As long as we can get our hands on a bit of cash — $1.5 million, to be exact.
“It’s just a matter of getting DTC to renegotiate their contract with SEPTA and pay a little more money for SEPTA to operate trains in Delaware,” said Curtis. “SEPTA is itching to do this, but they can’t do it unilaterally.”
That’s also due to the fact the physical tracks are owned by Amtrak. There are some conflicts, Curtis said, particularly during rush hour when SEPTA trains don’t cross the state border and “probably won’t.” That aside, Curtis said connecting every other train would cost a grand total of $1.5 million.
“That doesn’t even account for the savings you’d get, the property value increases in Wilmington, greater tax returns,” he said. “This would be transformational.”
In other words, the two extensions between December 2014 and December 2015 are tremendous. But they’re still not enough.
“I will continue working with SEPTA riders and the Wilmington business community to advocate for a funding increase for this critical service,” said Curtis.