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By EILEEN STILWELL
Not since the early 1970s has the subject of expanding the PATCO Hi-Speedline into Gloucester County been on anybody's table- until now.
The Delaware River Port Authority, which owns PATCO, agreed at its regular board meeting Wednesday to hire a consultant to study the "need and potential for expanded rapid transit service" in Gloucester and northern Cumberland counties along the Route 55 corridor, and in Center City Philadelphia.
The bistate board of directors unanimously agreed to spend $400,000 to study the issue for 12 to 18 months beginning soon.
A number of factors are driving the initiative, according to T.R. Hickey, PATCO's general manager.
PATCO ridership is dipping slightly after 10 years of remaining constant at 20,000 daily commuters. During the same time, traffic over DRPA's four bridges increased 26 percent and SEPTA ridership increased 24 percent.
PATCO, which began service in 1969, stops in underground Philadelphia stations laid out in 1926 when Center City employment was largely located east of Broad Street. That's a long walk for the office boom west of Broad and at Penn's Landing.
Gloucester County has experienced the most growth in South Jersey, according to the 2000 census, and there are no viable plans to manage the related congestion.
Hickey emphasized that the goal of the study is "to explore options" which may or may not include a Speedline extension.
"When PATCO wanted to expand in the early 1970s, they had a firm plan in mind and shared it with residents, who ultimately rejected it saying it would trigger more growth," he said. "Now the growth is real, and we need to ask communities what they want to do about it. It's a very different time."
No cost estimates, construction timetables, routes or or possible types of mass transit were discussed Wednesday.
DRPA Chairman Manuel Stamatakis said the price of congestion in terms of lost time and productivity in the region has become too high.
"By taking 13,000 cars off the highways each day, PATCO has reduced traffic congestion," said DRPA Chairman Manuel Stamatakis. "It is time to see if opportunities exist to expand public transit as a way to improve the regional economy and quality of life."
State Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, spoke at the meeting at One Port Center in support of a rapid rail line down routes 42 and 55. He said he supported the state Department of Transportation proposal to bring light rail into Gloucester County, similar to what is under construction between Trenton and Camden, but "backed off" when every community but Woodbury vehemently opposed it.
"It was a mistake, and we walked away from a $600 million to $1 billion investment in mass transit. I'm not an engineer; I'm just a guy who sits behind the wheel of a car, and I know we can't let that happen again."
During off-peak hours, Matheussen says he can drive from his Washington Township home to Camden in 25 minutes. On any given evening from 6:30 to 9, it can take more than an hour.
"In my opinion the 42-55 corridor would be a great place to bring the Hi-Speedline," he said.
In other business, DRPA approved a five-year contract with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542, which represents about 221 toll collectors, construction and maintenance workers.
The union approved the contract Saturday 116-41. About 65 eligible members did not vote. The contract calls for raises up to 5 percent, with varying combinations of bonuses. It also increases management's flexibility in work assignments and simplifies the seniority system.