DRPA Silent on ‘Tram to Nowhere’: Millions spent on now idle project

Member Group : Freindly Fire

In December 2000, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) started building a tram project to carry passengers between Philadelphia and Camden. The authority spent a considerable sum — possibly as much as $17 million — on the project, including building a tower in Pennsylvania and a concrete caisson in the river near Camden. Despite a sign near the DRPA headquarters marking the future home of the tram, no action has been taken for years.

A number of questions were posed to the DRPA on Nov. 18. Despite repeated requests for basic information on the tram, The Bulletin has received only a feasibility study from 1998, which took three months to obtain. It has been reported that there is a second feasibility study, which the DRPA has yet to provide to The Bulletin.

The DRPA responded numerous times, but with vague, noncommittal answers. On Nov. 18, 2008, the date of the original request, DRPA responded, "Your questions are being reviewed. This will take a while. However, newspaper archives contain many stories on this issue." Later that day, DRPA e-mailed a July 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer article, stating, "Don’t know if this helps. Not much written on this topic lately." It also communicated the authority was "researching this issue so we can provide you with answers."

On Dec. 5, 2008, DRPA responded to another request, "We are in the middle of our budget process. [After that], we will have some time to turn our attention to your requests."

Then on January 12, the port authority said it was "in the process of developing a written response to your questions regarding the Tram." It also said the feasibility study would be available for $11.75.

Further attempts for information resulted in the DRPA responses of: "Request received" on December 31, 2008, "Request acknowledged" on February 5 and "Received your tram request" on March 10.

After four months of being told that answers to The Bulletin’s request were being compiled, the port authority’s spokesman told The Bulletin on March 19, "I have just been informed we need your questions sent to us via snail (U.S.) mail."

A letter was sent via U.S. mail on March 21. No response has yet been received. A certified letter was subsequently sent.

Millions Spent With No Place To Land

Despite lacking a firm-landing site in Pennsylvania, the DRPA began spending millions on construction of the project. According to a 2004 press report, the tram was designed to land on top of a proposed family entertainment and retail complex. The building never materialized, which, according to a DRPA spokesman, is one factor why the tram project remains in limbo.

Questions have been raised, but not answered, about why the port authority would spend such a large sum on a project that had gaping holes in the final design. Building a tram infrastructure that has no landing facility raised may eyebrows, especially given the extensive history of failure in developing Penns Landing, the proposed Pennsylvania terminal for the tram.

Do Wind Effects Present Problems?

An analysis of the one document thus far received, the 1998 feasibility study, raises a number of questions regarding the viability of the tram project.

The tram’s design would use gondolas suspended more than 150 feet above the river; consequently, wind effects were "an important consideration" in the project’s design. The study said gondolas would "be subject to a high wind environment along the Delaware River."

According to the report, winds in excess of 45 miles per hour would shut down the tram. The effects of moderate winds "coupled with uneasiness about heights can create an uncomfortable ride."

The study also found the "buffeting effects of winds in the 25 mph range will cause discomfort to the average rider."

After obtaining wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the feasibility study group determined that the north-northwest prevailing wind direction was "most detrimental to gondola stability."

An analysis of the NOAA data revealed the tram would be closed due to high winds 16 days per year.

More puzzling, however, is why project spending commenced despite the DRPA learning that wind would cause a level of "discomfort" to its riders for 181 days, almost half the year. According to the study, the discomfort level occurs when there sustained winds above 20 mph. Of those 181 days, 73 of those days, representing 20 percent of the year, would see sustained winds above 25 mph. The figures represent a two-minute sustained wind, not an average daily wind, which it states is typically lower.

The Bulletin had requested information whether a solution was developed to counter the wind effects.

A response has not yet been forthcoming.

Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]