It has been nearly 111 years since the last train stopped at the Philadelphia Zoo. Last week zoo officials announced a proposal to move forward with a plan to build a $60 million station at 34th Street and Mantua Avenue.
The new station would feature new state-of-the-art rail platforms, elevators, stairways and would allow visitors to take Amtrak, SEPTA or New Jersey Transit services to get to the zoo.
According to the zoo’s website, out of the approximately 1.2 million visitors who walked through the zoo’s main entrance last year, 80 percent, or nearly 967,000 individuals, arrived by car. That’s the equivalent to 20 percent, or approximately 242,6000 individuals, who took the SEPTA Route 38 bus or Route 15 trolley.
Officials hope that a new train station would help alleviate traffic on the surrounding roads.
When the Philadelphia Zoo opened in West Philadelphia in 1874, officials hoped the surrounding railroads would attract visitors from outside the city limits to come and enjoy the wild animals and endangered species that America’s first zoo had to offer.
What the zoo didn’t realize was that with the rise of the American railroad revolution, the Pennsylvania system was rapidly expanding. The station at 34th Street and Girard Avenue would ultimately close in 1902.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the zoo acquired architect Robert P. Thomas to author the rail feasibility study for the new station. Thomas determined that building the new platform at the site of the old one would be impossible since the Amtrak and SEPTA rail lines meet at that location. In order to build around those existing lines, the project would cost approximately $200 million.
The only way the zoo would be able to gain rail access is to build the new station in Mantua, a short walk from the South entrance at 34th and Girard Ave.
Thomas Wilson, a Mantua resident who lives near the location of the proposed station, said that he would benefit from the plan considering he does not have a car.
“This would definitely help me because right now there is no convenient way for me to get to work, so I would be able to use the train station,” he said.
In recent years, increased traffic on Girard Avenue and congestion on the Schuylkill Expressway off-ramp to the zoo (which features a traffic light) has made getting to the zoo difficult for residents from the surrounding areas.
Merari Ortiz, a Mantua resident, takes her two daughters to the zoo several times a year. She believes a train station a short distance from the south entrance would be ideal for those who don’t live close to the area.
While the station would not affect her since she says she can take the back-roads to get there, it would be helpful for her sister who lives with her 2-year-old daughter in New Jersey.
“I tell her to bring her daughter over here all the time, but she doesn’t want to since the traffic around here is a nightmare and parking is expensive,” she said. “It seems like a no-brainer to me since it would be easier for people to get here and I would think attendance would go up also.”
While the plan is still in its earliest stages, zoo officials hope that, if developed, residents from the surrounding counties will take advantage of the new service. Currently, the zoo has four parking lots and a four-story, 683-space parking garage that opened to the public on Friday.
Yet, with expensive gas prices, parking rates at $15 per vehicle, an entrance fee of $20 per adult and $18 per child, a day-trip to the zoo can be an expensive venture for a family trying to save money in a tight economy.
Even for Melissa Williams, a Lansdale resident who has a family membership pass, a recent trip cost more than she thought it would.
“It was very expensive,” she said as she walked out of the zoo with her children. “I had to fill up my car before I left; that was around $45 and parking was $15. Then my kids got hungry so that was another $20.”
According to SEPTA’s website, a One-Day Independence Pass would cost a family of five $28 for a round trip on a regional rail line. Compared to approximately $60 that it would cost to fill up a car and pay for parking, a family like Williams’ would save an average of $32 for a day-trip.
“I would definitely take advantage of the train and go to the zoo more often if I had that option,” Williams said. “I have friends in the area and I could use the train to go see them too, so that would definitely be a plus.”
While the zoo does not have the $60 million it would take to build the new Mantua station, it plans to seek funding from the federal government in the near future.
Repeated calls and an email to the Philadelphia Zoo’s Communications Department for a comment on this story were not returned.