SEPTA’s Somerset station, which closed this past Sunday, will see “a number of safety and security improvements” upon its reopening, according to SEPTA’s Chief Press Officer, Andrew Busch. The improvements will include a street-level police booth, which will help improve visible police presence and provide officers with “a good vantage point to monitor conditions at and around entrances, exits and passageways,” Busch added.
The planned improvements will also include the hiring of temporary security guards, which will be present at all Market-Frankford Line locations between 15th Street and the Frankford Transportation Center.
“While SEPTA Police have always had regular patrols at Somerset Station,” Busch said, “we are looking at ways to increase police presence.”
Busch’s email to the Star came one day after a protest march was held on behalf of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation. Residents complained that the station was, in their opinion, abruptly shut down.
“A lot of people use this form of transportation to go to and from medical appointments, to purchase food, to visit family,” said Ralph Whitfield, who lives half a block from Somerset Station and uses the El as his main form of transportation. “It’s difficult especially with a cane or a wheelchair to walk down to Huntingdon Station or Allegheny Station” – the next-closest stops on the Market-Frankford Line – “or sometimes waiting out here for the bus in the elements and things of that nature. So it’s very difficult for us.”
Whitfield, who himself walks with a cane, is also on the board of NKCDC and Somerset Neighbors for Better Living.
“A lot of times I cancel appointments because I can’t walk down to the Huntingdon Station,” he told the Star. “And I’m definitely not going to walk down to the Allegheny Station.”
The Allegheny Station is avoided by many in the community because it sits right at the corner of Kensington and Allegheny avenues, known as K&A to locals, which is the hub of the opioid epidemic in Kensington.
“It looks like everybody went to the boardwalk except for the wrong reason,” said Ken Paul, president of PROPAC, a Port Richmond civic association. “All of them are in the neighborhood doing their thing.”
Paul, who was born and raised in Kensington despite now residing in Port Richmond, was at the protest because many Port Richmond residents who live in the southern end of the neighborhood use Somerset Station to get to Center City. The closure of Somerset Station, Paul said, forces residents to choose between Huntingdon Station, which is further away, or Allegheny Station, which is overrun with people suffering from addiction and homelessness.
“Those are your choices,” said Paul. “It’s like a rock and a hard place. Neither way you want to go.”
Bill McKinney, NKCDC’s executive director, said that a big part of the issue for residents was the lack of notification provided before the closure.
“Closing it without any consultation with the residents is an insane situation,” he told the Star. “It’s a primary form of transportation for most of our residents here. Folks need to get to the doctors, they need to get to work. They need to be able to handle their basic business.”
SEPTA currently does not have a reopening date in mind for the station, “but expect to have an update soon,” said Busch. “We plan to provide an update to both city officials and community groups at the end of this week, including a timeline for reopening.”
McKinney said that SEPTA should work with residents to provide alternative forms of transportation, like shuttle buses.
“[SEPTA] needs to make sure that people can have what they need,” said McKinney. “So if there needs to be additional shuttles, there needs to be additional shuttles. If there needs to be additional police presence so that people are safe, waiting on shuttles and buses, they need to do that.”
Venise Whitaker, a local activist, agreed.
“They’re totally stopping public transportation in a community that needs it,” she said. “A stop should never be closed down automatically, whatsoever.”
Gloria Cartagena, co-secretary of Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, was particularly enraged about what she felt was a lack of communication from SEPTA about the closure.
“It’s how they came about it,” she said. “They didn’t give us a warning. They didn’t tell us anything. Just a shutdown. We found out through rumors.”
According to Busch, a station closure notice was posted on March 15, six days before the closure.
“This included signs posted at the station, a notice on SEPTA’s website, and posts on our social media channels,” he said.
Busch called the closure an “emergency closure.”
“We wanted to be able to provide some notice for riders to make alternate travel plans, but at the same time, we needed to move quickly to close the station and get work underway to make critical repairs,” he said. “We know it has been disruptive for many riders, and we are working around the clock to get the station ready to serve the community while remaining safe for riders and employees.”
Busch said that significant damage had been done to the station’s steel structures, elevators, stairwells and pedestrian bridge due to “urine and other human waste.”
Discarded needles in the track area and the elevator shaft will be cleaned up by a contractor that handles hazardous waste. Crews will also perform “deep cleanings” throughout the station, install enhanced lighting, and remove graffiti.
“SEPTA’s top priority is ensuring the safety and security of customers and employees,” Busch said. “The transit system has served as the region’s backbone during the pandemic, providing travel for essential workers and access to healthcare, groceries, pharmacies and other vital services. As the region transitions to recovery, SEPTA will be ready to provide safe and efficient service for residents.”
He said that the pandemic has “exacerbated” challenges with an already vulnerable population, including individuals experiencing poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and mental health problems.
“This is a societal issue,” said Busch, “and SEPTA is working closely with the City of Philadelphia and other partners on meaningful, short- and long-term solutions.”