Plenty of guesswork in SEPTA budget process

SEPTA opened its capital budget process on Dec. 15, and the word coming from officials was uncertainty.

Uncertainty over the future of $110 million in funding from Act 44, the law which provides SEPTA with its state subsidy.

Uncertainty over federal transit funding, with the extension of the current federal transportation bill due to run out on Friday.

Uncertainty over any additional federal stimulus money that might come SEPTA’s way as Congress considers a new bill to jump start the economy.

That uncertainty was reflected in the preliminary budget plans, covering fiscal years 2011 through 2014, that SEPTA released at two public hearings.

SEPTA is planning on spending $418 million on 23 projects in fiscal 2010. The largest chunk of that money, $171.7 million, or 41 percent, would be devoted to state of good repair projects.

Though the authority indicated that it would continue work on the R3 extension to Wawa and begin work on the City Hall/15th Street Station renovation project and the new smart card system, the Norristown High Speed Line extension to King of Prussia was notable for its absence.

SEPTA CFO and treasurer Richard Burnfield said that exclusion from the list doesn’t mean that a project is dead, but that funding uncertainty means SEPTA doesn’t have money to spend on it.

He said that SEPTA is working with other older transit systems in cities like New York and Boston to push for the inclusion of a “Restart Program” into the transit reauthorization, which would allow more federal money to be devoted to capital projects for more developed transit systems.

The current New Starts program has parameters that are difficult for older transit agencies with extensive systems to meet.

Matthew Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, a rider advocacy group, also suggested to SEPTA officials implement changes to make the budget process more transparent.

He asked that SEPTA provide impact statements for major capital projects in the budget to allow the public to judge and plan for the consequences of development.

He also asked for more details on “grab-bag projects” — like the infrastructure safety renewal and rail signaling projects — that hit many parts of the system.

Mitchell also repeated DVARP’s request for more information concerning the questions potential bidders to develop the smart card system asked SEPTA and asked that the authority develop fleet management plans to help with decisions on replacing the Silverliner IV rail cars.

Burnfield, in turn, promised transparency on upcoming fleet purchasing decisions and said that the federal transit reauthorization will likely require transit systems to develop asset management plans. SEPTA has begun the process of developing its own plan, he said.

This was the first of two rounds of public hearings for the capital budget. SEPTA will hold another public hearing in April. The SEPTA Board will vote on the budget in May.

SEPTA is taking written comments on the proposed budget through Jan. 15. Members of the public can e-mail comments to capbudget@septa.org or mail comments to:

SEPTA Capital Budgets Department

Attn: Capital Budget & Program

1234 Market St., 9th Floor

Philadelphia, PA 19107

Contact the reporter at campisi.anthony@gmail.com

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