How your commute will get worse if the state yanks SEPTA funding

A rider waits SEPTA ridership is down due to coronavirus. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A rider waits SEPTA ridership is down due to coronavirus. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

If state funding for SEPTA disappears, the next 10 years will give way to a deprived version of our current public transportation system, SEPTA is warning Pennsylvania lawmakers.

SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards told the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee Wednesday that a handful of transit services would vanish in the next decade if the authority can’t secure its usual funding from Harrisburg — now in jeopardy amid the pandemic-induced state budget crisis.

Without sustained state funding, SEPTA says it would be forced to cut —

  • The entire Broad-Ridge Spur
  • Four of the 13 Regional Rail lines
  • More than 100 stations on the remaining nine of the 13 Regional Rail routes

SEPTA would also convert six trolley routes and the Sharon Hill Line (Route 102) to bus service and trains on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines would run less frequently.

In addition, service would be curtailed on the Norristown High Speed Line.

Richards’ Wednesday testimony painted a portrait of a public transportation authority already suffering under the weight of the pandemic.

“It comes at a crucial moment,” Richards said of the hearing. “For the first time in SEPTA’s history, the authority is facing simultaneous operating and capital funding crises that are intersecting at the very time when SEPTA is, and will be, so urgently needed.”

Richards rolled out the threat of a “service reduction plan” as the agency grapples with threats to the annual funding stream provided by Act 89, which passed in 2013 and nearly doubled SEPTA’s budget, helping the transit authority make badly needed infrastructure repairs.

Under Act 89, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission provides the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation with a $450 million cash infusion to support transit. SEPTA is the largest single beneficiary, receiving $178 million of its $640 million capital budget through these payments, made in quarterly installments. That funding was always set to expire in 2022 — at which point it would need to be renewed by the state House, or it would drop to a $50 million annual contribution.

But the pandemic brought the budgetary blow two years early. In July, the Turnpike Commission delayed payment to PennDot and the amount that comes over the next 11 months will be reduced.

In the current fiscal year, which started on July 1, PennDOT planned to provide SEPTA $349 million in capital funds. Now, Richards said they can only commit to $97 million. That required an immediate slash of $250 million worth of capital projects, which would have updated station accessibility and bought electric buses.

“Will SEPTA service provide critical mobility that drives the state’s most vital economic region?” Richards said. “Or will it be a system devastated by disinvestment that limits mobility today and will prevent southeastern Pennsylvania’s continued growth potential in the future?”

Philly’s transit authority scored $644 million in emergency CARES Act funding in June. For now, Richards said, they can stretch that cash to last until the end of 2021.

But not if additional state and federal funds are cut first.

“Any reduction of state and local operating subsidies would accelerate the use of CARES Act funds and increase SEPTA’s unfunded operating shortfall, significantly impacting operations,” Richards testified.

“Without additional investment,” she added, “transportation will become a limiter to southeastern Pennsylvania’s continued growth potential.”

SEPTA officials have long credited the now imperiled Act 89 with keeping the agency solvent.

“There’s not a day goes by that one of us here at SEPTA doesn’t thank our lucky stars for Act 89,” Jeffrey Knueppel, then SEPTA’s deputy general manager, told PhillyVoice in 2015. “It came just in time. We were literally on the brink of having to close down service because some of the infrastructure would not have been safe enough.”

During her testimony, Richards also honored the seven SEPTA employees who died from coronavirus, some of whom worked for the transit authority for decades:

  • Ted Nixon: mechanic, Elmwood Shop
    More than 30 years of service
  • Michael Hill: Regional Rail conductor
    More than 30 years of service

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