SEPTA is getting $643M in federal coronavirus aid

SEPTA is getting the emergency federal aid it needs to fill its coronavirus-depleted coffers. But experts say the money won’t be enough to make the agency whole.

A SEPTA rider dons a surgical mask. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A SEPTA rider dons a surgical mask. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA is getting $643 million in emergency federal aid it needs to fill its coronavirus-depleted coffers.

The money comes as part of a $1.13 billion pot of new federal transit funding for Pennsylvania included in the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus relief bill.

“Our public transit systems are a backbone of our communities and I will continue to work to ensure they receive the resources they need during this time of national crisis,”  U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D.,Pa.) said Friday.

In the Philadelphia region, a total of $700.5 million will go to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, according to Casey’s office. The planning organization will then distribute it among the region’s transit agencies, including PATCO.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The $643 million earmarked for SEPTA will cover “targeted operating budgets,” over the next 12-18  months, said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch.

Under normal circumstances, the federal government only provides mass transit agencies financial aid for capital projects, not operating expenses. But with ridership plummeting and no end to the region’s shutdown in sight, SEPTA’s main source of funds has been eviscerated. Regional Rail ridership is down 97% and city transit ridership is down by 78%.

In the current fiscal year ending on June 30, the agency is anticipating a loss of $150 million dollars from fare revenue. SEPTA is also looking at a $250 million loss from state funding sources in the next fiscal year — a conservative estimate, Busch said. The stimulus money will help fill the budget holes as the agency confronts many still-unanswerable questions about long-term impacts.

“We’re still not sure what this means for transit in the long term,” Busch said. “Are people going to be using the system the same way? Will we still have to social distance [in the future]? What will that mean for ridership? Then there’s the unemployment picture.”

Experts say that this support from the federal government, like the larger stimulus effort, is better than nothing but not nearly enough to address the scale of the crisis. 

“My sense is that big agencies will buy a couple of months out of that stimulus, but it’s not going to carry them all the way through to the end of the crisis and the recovery,” said Jarrett Walker, a consultant who works with mass transit agencies across the United States.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Mass transit agencies across the country employ as many people as the airline industry, which federal policymakers are also planning to help with an aid package.

June Armstrong, a spokesperson for Philly Transit Rider Union, asked SEPTA in a public statement to release a plan for using the emergency funds.  The group made its own priority list for the emergency funds. That list includes additional cleaning crews, restoration of Nite Owl shuttle bus service and emergency paid leave and hazard pay to all SEPTA employees.

The union also asked SEPTA to make all “transit free throughout the duration of this crisis to reduce the contact between SEPTA employees and the general public during this time.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal