Philly’s next mayor must be ready to lead on transit issues

SEPTA is a state agency, but its ridership is overwhelmingly from Philly. The city’s next mayor will need to step up its involvement, writes transit advocate Matt Sullivan.

FILE - SEPTA bus in Center City Philadelphia.  (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

FILE - SEPTA bus in Center City Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philly’s 100th mayor will have their hands full. Mayoral hopefuls are already talking to voters about fighting poverty, bringing new resources to our neighborhoods, and addressing the challenges with the city’s troubled police department. But there’s an issue near to my heart that we don’t hear about from candidates often enough: A great mayor should fight for great public transit for our city.

SEPTA is a state agency, which means that much of the responsibility for the system now falls to the legislature and Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro. But the agency’s ridership is overwhelmingly from Philadelphia. That means that we need to know that the mayor will advocate for us when it comes to transit, not shrug their shoulders and point to Harrisburg.

A transit mayor will be stepping into an empty space. For example, outgoing Mayor Kenney was noticeably absent amid the furor over SEPTA management’s decision last year to close Somerset Station in Kensington “indefinitely.” (At least one of the council members who stepped up in Kenney’s absence is running to replace him.) The first commitment I’m hoping candidates will make is this: Philly’s next mayor should amplify community voices when SEPTA closes our stops and stations. If a station is closing, or a trolley route is overcrowded every day, or a bus route change is hurting riders, I know I’ll hear about it from my neighbors; I’d like to hear about it from City Hall too.

But giving speeches is ultimately a small part of the job. There are other ways a transit mayor can stand up for Philadelphia. For starters, they can take a long look at the agency’s board.

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Regular transit riders get to know the bus and trolley operators running local routes; they’re the essential workers we depend on to get to work on time. But we rarely see the board members who control the agency’s spending priorities, even as their choices shape our daily commutes.  That’s a shame, because those choices have kept SEPTA lagging shamefully behind in making the system accessible for everyone. Their choices have committed millions of dollars to the glitchy, unreliable SEPTA Key. And if they wanted to, their choices could dramatically expand transit in our city.

The problem is that the board doesn’t represent SEPTA’s ridership. Most of the board is appointed by either statewide officials or electeds in the counties outside the city. As a result, board members don’t look like Philadelphia and they don’t ride the bus. If the board’s makeup were in proportion to ridership, twelve of the fifteen members would represent Philly.

Because the board hires the agency’s general manager, nothing will change until the board does. The mayor gets one appointment, and it has to count. When the chance to fill that seat comes up again, the next mayor must appoint a member who rides SEPTA; who will run for chair of the board; and who is willing to advocate for the city instead of voting in lockstep with other members. Philly’s next mayor should appoint a board member who will fight for us.

Appointing a strong board member is a good start, but holding the rest of the board accountable is even better.

Philly’s next mayor must be ready to keep the pressure on the board to do right by us. This shouldn’t be necessary, but it is, and I would encourage anyone who doubts that to attend one of the agency’s desultory board meetings. Public feedback is part of each meeting, but General Manager Leslie Richards doesn’t always take the time to answer the questions posed by the public. It’s not the only dead-end for community feedback; speaking from personal experience, my emails are often ignored too. (Earlier this year I did receive a response from a spokesperson, with some answers and some deflections, blaming an aggressive spam filter. To accommodate, I sent follow-up questions through the postal service; ten months later, I’m still waiting for a response to that letter.)

I asked my questions of SEPTA management privately, as someone who rides the trolleys and cares about good transit. But the next mayor will have a mandate to ask those questions in public, and they should use their bully pulpit to press SEPTA management for answers to the questions riders and operators ask. The mayor’s office must have a staffer at every board meeting, and Philly’s next mayor should be present for the board’s most crucial votes: the annual meetings in which the board considers the operating and capital budgets. Meetings are virtual for now, but when they return to being in person, the mayor should be in the front row.   That’ll provide them an opportunity to lift up our priorities —  and, if the board votes the other way, tell us what the city can do to help meet the need.

To see what’s possible, our next mayor can look to Philly’s recent history. In 2007, then-Mayor Street took SEPTA to court over an inequitable fare hike that would have done away with transfers and required riders to pay full price on the second leg of each multi-vehicle trip. (It’s worth noting that the city’s appointed board members took the same stand – and that the board’s chairman in 2007 remains chair today.)

Philly’s next mayor can also look North to Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu has expanded a pilot program begun under her predecessor, Kim Janey, to make some bus lines free to ride on a trial basis. The program has helped ridership rebound from huge losses in 2020 and helped commuters keep money in their pockets. Philly’s next mayor may want to take note of that last part; according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Expressed as a percentage of income, the fares that Philadelphia residents pay are higher than those in all of the comparison cities [including Boston].” Like SEPTA, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is a state agency – but Boston’s leadership got a deal done.

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The candidates for mayor have already started laying out platforms and making promises. I’m excited to find out which of them have been listening. It’s important that they understand how vital a strong public transit system is to Philadelphia. After all, City Hall is a subway stop.

Matt Sullivan is a transit advocate in Philly.  Like a lot of people who feel strongly about public transportation, he’s never missed an election.

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