By Steve Tawa

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The ribbon was cut today, and now the Philadelphia Zoo’s new “transportation center” is open, to improve the experience of visitors to the nation’s first zoo.

The $24-million project includes a four-story, 683-space parking garage near 35th Street and Girard Avenue.

Zoo president Vikram Dewan said that will help ease the crunch of the zoo’s 1.2 million visitors each year.

“We’ve been looking for ways in which the visitor experience on arrival here at the zoo could be at the highest quality level,” he noted during dedication ceremonies.

The zoo and the city have also made signal upgrades that improve traffic flow at the I-76 off-ramps.  Dewan says streetscape and lighting improvements will make the area safer for pedestrians — including parents pushing strollers.

“America’s first zoo is quickly becoming America’s best zoo,” said James Maddy, with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, today.  “There are 2,800 licensed (zoos), 200 accredited, maybe a dozen in your class — and you’ve gone right to the top of that class!”

Down the road, the zoo would also like to get a train stop. A new feasibility study indicates that could cost $60 million, but there are both financing and engineering challenges to overcome.  The zoo would most likely have to finance the project and secure federal funding.

Also, officials say the tracks around the zoo’s perimeter — serving both Amtrak and Septa trains — are one of the busiest intersections along the Northeast Corridor.

One alternative possibility is a stop at 34th Street and Mantua Avenue, a short walk from the zoo.

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