SEPTA boss: Service cuts and layoffs imminent unless COVID relief comes soon

SEPTA and other transit agencies are facing a massive funding shortfall that could imperil operations in 2021.

SEPTA General manager Leslie Richards speaks to a fellow SEPTA employee at Frankford Transportation Center in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of SEPTA)

SEPTA General manager Leslie Richards speaks to a fellow SEPTA employee at Frankford Transportation Center in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of SEPTA)

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SEPTA will have to lay off employees and cut services early next year if federal officials don’t pass another pandemic relief bill soon, SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards said Thursday.

The general manager warned that such a setback could cripple the region’s expected recovery in the wake of new vaccines.

“Our region’s health care providers, businesses, and schools are planning for the future,” Richards said. “IF SEPTA is unable to meet the transportation needs of the region, it will short circuit the desperately needed economic recovery just as it is taking off.”

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Richards made her announcement during a press conference with other U.S. transportation leaders calling on federal officials to pass a COVID-19 relief bill that will provide more funds to public transportation. Congress is currently working on the relief bill.

She offered gratitude for the CARES Act relief bill that passed back in early spring. The $2.2 trillion relief bill allotted $25 billion for public transportation nationwide. Pennsylvania received $1.13 billion of the funds, with $643 million going to SEPTA.

The cash infusion bought SEPTA time, but only through the end of next year.

“The CARES Act has been a lifeline for SEPTA,” Richards said. “However, additional assistance is needed to ensure that critical transit services will be able to support the nation in recovery.”

State and citywide COVID-19 mitigation efforts have depleted ridership for the authority. Today, ridership throughout the system is about 30% of pre-pandemic levels. Richards said SEPTA is losing $1 million in fare revenue daily and projects an operating budget shortfall of at least $622 million.

“This is not a red or a blue issue,” said Pat Foye, CEP and chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, which hosted the event. “It’s a jobs issue.”

Foye called for $12 billion for his own MTA and at least $32 billion for transit nationwide. The CEO said a lack of funding will result in deep cuts and “will fall disproportionately on the backs of working people, low-income customers, people of color in low-income communities.”

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Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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