Ahead of House transportation vote, SEPTA works the phones

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote on a transportation bill this week that could strip guarantees out of the federal gas tax that fund public transit.

SEPTA employees and board members are making a round of calls to members of Congress, asking local representatives to help reverse the change, saying the funding uncertainty it would create would prevent the regional transit agency from planning for the future.   Since the Reagan administration, 20 percent of the money from the U.S. tax on gasoline has gone to public transit. The transportation bill would end that set-aside. Public transit would get $40 billion for now, but after 2016 there would be no guarantees.Congress would decide on public transit funding year by year, making it subject to the fluxuations in Congressional moods and negotiations.

“With the budget and budget uncertainty in DC, to have that at risk every year not knowing how much money, when you’re going to get it. You can’t make a commitment to a capital project if you don’t know the dollars are there,” says SEPTA’s chief financial officer, Richard Burnfield.

He compares the situation to buying a house without knowing if you can pay the mortgage beyond the first two years. I’m not going to start a project that i don’t have a way to pay for it. I can’t award a contract and then a year from now, two years from now not have a way to pay a vendor,” says Burnfield. “We just don’t do that at SEPTA.”Burnfield says projects that could be delayed include a major substation powering regional rail lines and any major renovations of the City Hall station in Philadelphia. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican, has signed on as a co-sponsor to an amendment striking the change from the bill. It’s supported by a bipartisan group of representatives — overwhelmingly from New York State.

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