Friday, July 01, 2005

Politics and trolleys: the rest of the story

Ben pointed me to a great Op-Ed in the Chestnutt Hill Local about Michael Nutter’s role in the 15 Trolley debacle.

My commentary in the June 2 edition of the Local focused on a bizarre political situation that has been festering for over a year, the outgrowth of a most unusual conflict between a West Philadelphia neighborhood, SEPTA, an $84 million taxpayer investment and a high-profile councilman who walked away from an important decision.
Michael Nutter, self-appointed dragon-slayer of all social ills, could not seem to bring himself to override the wishes of a ward leader in his district, even though those wishes include an illegal conversion and use of a street, and a costly reversal of progress for a surface transportation project fully funded, paid for and potentially operational. That project is the Route 15 Girard Avenue streetcar system that was to initiate similar upgrades and restoration for two other routes, one of them being our own Route 23 on Germantown Avenue. The start date for Route 15 was June 2004.


The real story is that Carol Campbell, ward leader and secretary of the Democratic City Committee, sitting at the right hand of U.S. Congressman Bob Brady, is so powerful that she is seen as the kingmaker or career breaker in the next mayoral election. She is reputed to control so many inner city wards that a few phone calls could end or start careers. Nutter is genuinely afraid to cross her, and Brady will hide in the corner if told to do so — and he did so.


The current SEPTA management seems to want to do all it can to remove itself from any obligation to run trolleys again, and for that reason has not taken a very aggressive position in trying to remedy the stalemate on Route 15. No wonder a full year has passed since the announced start date. Some feel that by keeping the spotlight off that trolley line, it precludes SEPTA from having to explain not only why the two other routes have languished, but why the agency has begun selectively dismantling the infrastructure it was supposed to maintain. Most of this “unofficial sabotage” began the month after the Route 15 startup was put off.

I think that we all know that Michael Nutter is eyeing the Mayoral seat in 2007, and one does not get there by pissing off party bosses. But I don’t think that it is necessarily that simple. First of all, Nutter, if he is as independent minded as people make him out to be, will never get the support from the party in the primary over Chakah Fattah and John Saidel, although I don’t think that Campbell is in the Chakah Fattah cheering section. But more importantly, believe it or not, this is how the Ward structure is supposed to work. Nutter has been known as one of the only District Councilmen to defer to their Ward Leaders about issues of the sort. In most districts, the old system where Ward Leaders actually controlled the destiny of their Wards is virtually non-existent.

I think that we also must note that this is not just about parking spaces. SEPTA has made it clear that they do not want to maintain Trolley lines. If you were living in West Philly, would you want to park somewhere else only to have that street have abandoned Trolley tracks that turn into blithe?

Nutter does not just have to worry about the Mayor’s race here. If he decides to back out then he will have to defend his Council seat. You don’t stay in office by pissing off your constituents, no matter how wrong you think that they are.


At 2:48 PM, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

A VERY interesting Op-Ed. My question to you, Charlesdog, is whether you would agree that it should be Nutter's job to balance the needs and desires of a particular ward against the interests of the City as a whole. Does he have responsibility to a larger constituancy beyond just those who might lose parkins spaces? Is it irresponsbile for Campbell to refuse to negotiate? Is it irresponsible of Nutter, speculation about his motiviations aside, to not force her to the negotiating table?

At 3:10 PM, Blogger Charles said...

I think this is a situation where we are failing because the system is doing what it is supposed to do. It’s like Woody Allen said, “I like complete Democracy, and the American system is good too.” Campbell is supposed to fight for her Ward, no matter how ridiculous their plights may be (even though there are very legitimate concerns by the neighbors, especially considering that SEPTA has screwed them in the past). Does Nutter have a great responsibility to the City as a whole? Nope, not really. He was elected and is paid to represent his district. Now won could make the argument that what is good for the city as a whole is good for his district. That may be true, but it usually doesn’t sell well.

My question is why aren’t people all over SEPTA? Is Nutter the only one who can move this thing forward? Is he the only one stalling it?

I’d love to get the 23 Trolley back, but such is life.

At 1:15 AM, Blogger Marc said...

SEPTA’s attitude toward trolleys and, in particular, the 15 trolley is a little more complicated than Jim Foster’s article in the Chestnut Hill Local suggests.

First, it is true that SEPTA is not enamored with restoring trolleys. There is, I think, one main reason: running trolleys costs SEPTA more than running buses. SEPTA has to pay for the infrastructure for trolleys: the track and electrical system. The infrastructure for buses is paid for by the city and PennDot.

That does not mean that trolleys are a bad idea. From the perspective of the city and region as a whole, trolleys are a very good idea. They are less polluting than buses. They carry more passengers than buses. They attract more riders than buses, partly because they are more comfortable. (This will be especially true of the new, rebuilt, air-conditioned trolleys on the 15 line.) They also attract more riders because their route is fixed by the rails and easier to follow, especially for infrequent riders and tourists. And they do much less damage to the roads than buses.

The trouble is that what is rational for all of us is not necessarily rational for SEPTA. So what we trolley advocates have to do—and have been doing—is to keep the pressure on SEPTA and, also, help SEPTA get the capital and operating funds it needs to restore the trolleys.

Second, while SEPTA is not keen on trolley’s, after spending over $80 million on restoring the 15 line, they worked very hard to see it restored. About eight weeks ago, I started talking with SEPTA about this issue in my role as one of organizers of the Pennsylvania Transit Coalition. The PTC has been developing a proposal, which we will announce in the next two weeks, to work with SEPTA and community groups to improve transit in the region. I thought that helping get the 15 trolley unstuck might be a good way to get this program rolling. In my discussions with SEPTA I heard in great detail the efforts it had made to reach out to Carol Campbell to address both the parking problems on the street where the trolley runs and, also, the longer term problems created by the Callowhill depot for this neighborhood. SEPTA was quite honest about having failed to resolve those problems in the past and was willing to take steps to resolve them now. After finding out what SEPTA was willing to do, I tried about four different ways of getting Carol Campbell to meet with me and SEPTA about the 15 trolley. I was never successful. But, in the process, I did talk with Congressman Brady’s office and this may have played a minor in involving the Congressman in this issue.

I don’t think all is lost with the 23 trolley. Transit advocates have been working on the issue for some time. I am hopeful that once the 15 starts running, and folks see how wonderful the new trolley is, citizens and community groups will join with transit advocates in pushing for the restoration of the 23.

For more details about the problems we have had restoring the 15 trolley and installing new transit first technology on some of the existing trolley, see my article in the June 15 Chestnut Hill Local

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Ben Waxman said...

In response to the question if Nutter has a responsiblity to his district or the city as a whole:

Councilman Nutter has made it very clear that he wants to run for Mayor in 2007. If you're going to position yourself as the candidate of reform, which I believe he has, you cannot be beholden to ward leaders and basically hold up projects that are good for the city as a whole. To be mayor, you need the guts and vision to fight against the ward system when it is doing the wrong thing.

At 2:27 AM, Blogger Charles said...

Ben: I understand what you are saying. However, I see two possibilities for Nutter. One, he runs for Mayor, and by doing so, pissing off a very powerful Ward Leader will kill his chances. Two, he bows out if Chaka runs, in which case, he will have to run again for his own seat. You don’t keep your seat by screwing over your Ward Leaders. Add on top of that that Nutter has a reputation of giving his Ward Leaders power.

So, in a perfect world, should Nutter act right by the whole city? Of course. But this isn’t a perfect world. And do you mean to tell me that you want a Mayor who will commit political suicide because we as progressive activists think that it is the right thing to do?

At 11:32 PM, Blogger Marc said...

Ward leaders are not as important in Mayoral elections as in other city wide elections. Mayoral candidates tend to have independent connections to voters, not least because mayoral primaries are well covered by the press.

I wonder how much Michael Nutter's chances of winning reelection to his district council seat are affected by his relationship with Carol Campbell. Nutter is an extremely popular district councilperson.


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