The future of Bucks County will involve more — and safer — ways to commute.
Those were the major points made at the 17th annual meeting for the Transportation Management Association of Bucks County.
Held last Friday at Parx Casino in Bensalem, the event recognized Levittown resident Sharon Rearick for her efforts to have new sidewalks installed on New Falls Road, and awarded scholarships to students who will pursue transportation-related fields in college.
Finally, SEPTA General Manager Jeff Knueppel outlined the mass transit organization’s goals, latest expansions and safety efforts in his keynote speech.
“People expect to have a safe trip,” said Knueppel of the expectations for mass transit authorities. And, he promised, “In short order, SEPTA will be one of the safest in the country.”
Mass transit use saw a 51-percent rise over the last decade, as SEPTA works to upgrade and expand its facilities with a much smaller budget than other large cities. Boston, Knueppel cited as an example, has an annual capital improvements budget of around $1 billion, while the comparable Philadelphia region makes due with about a third of that.
Thanks to the state’s 2013 transportation bill, SEPTA has seen a rise in funding since then. This year, the organization’s goals include reducing its capital repairs backlog and, as always, making rail travel safer. While always an important issue, said Knueppel, it’s become especially significant since last year’s Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia.
“I was at the candlelight vigil,” he said. “I’ve always been a safety-first guy, but that doubled after that.”
In the suburbs, that has meant identifying and rebuilding or repairing bridges across the county, some of which are more than 100 years old. SEPTA is also installing new positive train control devices, which prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments and other risks, along the regional rail lines. So far, they’ve been installed at the Warminster and Fox Chase stops, and Doylestown is next on the list.
That’s all as SEPTA courts new riders while working to accommodate the larger crowds. Double-decker trains will be purchased later this year, for instance, for use during peak hours and on express trips. Since more trips can’t be scheduled, explained Knueppel, SEPTA can add more riders to each one.
They’re also piloting a new program to address overcrowded parking at many stations: the online taxi company Uber is offering 40 percent off rides to SEPTA regional rail stations. The idea is that more people will take the train — and get to it safely — if they don’t have to play “parking roulette” when they get to the station.
“It’s unnerving going to the station not knowing if there’s going to be parking,” said Knueppel.
Meanwhile, one woman’s years-long effort to make Levittown a little safer for pedestrians was recognized at the meeting.
Sharon Rearick was recognized with a community service award for the efforts of her group, Sidewalks Are For Everyone. It became a passion for Rearick after her son was fatally struck by a vehicle while walking home along the shoulder of New Falls Road four years ago this July.
Since then, she’s worked with PennDOT and local officials to have sidewalks installed on New Falls Road between Route 413 and Oxford Valley Road. It was an uphill battle, to say the least: people told her years ago that it was nearly impossible to get this approved. Still, she soldiered on.
“I called myself the ‘crazy sidewalk lady,’ ” she said at the meeting.
Rearick’s efforts were rewarded early this year, when PennDOT agreed to spend $1.7 million along that stretch of New Falls Road, under the condition that Middleton and Bristol Townships maintain them. Her moment finally came when the townships agreed to the project.
“Sharon Rearick is a loving mother who faced a parent’s worst nightmare,” said state Rep. Tina Davis, who presented the community award. “But, she turned it into a battle to correct a wrong.”
Davis spoke of the “relentless four years of constant lobbying and diligence” displayed by Rearick, who was teary-eyed when she accepted the award.
“It was the best feeling in the world, getting that approval,” she said.
Construction on the sidewalk begins next year as Rearick and SAFE explore ways to raise awareness for pedestrian safety — even down to simple things like curtailing speeding and making sure people know to walk against traffic rather than with it. She’s also eyeing the next stretch of New Falls Road, where there’s a gap in the sidewalk between her area and the stretch near Tyburn Road that’s also being worked on.
“It’s a lot,” she said. “Baby steps.”
William D. Rickett Scholarship ($1,500): Sabrina Vincente, Council Rock High School South.
Joseph D. DiGirolamo Scholarship ($1,000): Matthew Ziegler, Bucks County Technical School
TMA Scholarships ($1,000): Megan Baldwin, Bucks County Technical High School; Ilana Gorberg, Council Rock High School South; Olivia Schuler, Conwell-Egan Catholic High School.