SEPTA’s commuter parking spots won’t be free for much longer

Since March 2020, parking at 146 SEPTA station stops have been free for commuters, but ridership recovery and a budget crunch are changing that.

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cars parked by a SEPTA train

Conshohocken has a surface parking lot for 101 commuter vehicles. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY)

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There was a sea of vehicles at SEPTA’s Fort Washington Regional Rail train station on a recent weekday after rush hour. But not a single commuter paid for parking that day in a lot with nearly 600 spaces.

Travelers have not paid for any SEPTA parking for the past four and a half years.

That’s because a “Welcome Back’” sign still hangs on the parking payment boards and kiosks telling customers they don’t have to pay.

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A SEPTA sign says Welcome Back
A SEPTA sign says “Welcome Back” to Regional Rail riders at the Fort Washington station. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY)

It’s been the same policy for about 25,000 parking spots across SEPTA’s Regional Rail network since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Ridership dropped dramatically as the world shut down but has since recovered years later.

“We’ve been very focused on trying to build up ridership,” said Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesperson.

But now that much of its ridership has returned and the transit organization faces a tight budget, free parking isn’t going to last much longer.

SEPTA’s budget proposes to reinstate parking fees of $1 per day for lots and $2 per day for garages — then potentially double the fees to $2 and $4, respectively.

In 2019, SEPTA collected $4.7 million from its parking operations. It’s a small slice of total revenues collected — passenger fares that year totaled $517.9 million.

A parking lot kiosk at the Fort Washington SEPTA Regional Rail train station
A parking lot kiosk at the Fort Washington SEPTA Regional Rail train station with 589 parking spaces for commuter vehicles. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY)

But every dollar counts, even if those parking fees were collected for years in quarters dropped into a collection box.

“The reality is we’re in a budget crunch and we’re looking at all ways that we can to increase our revenues,” Busch said. “It’s still far less expensive than you would spend to park in Center City.”

Beyond that, SEPTA is considering a more streamlined and modern payment system for parking, but nothing is finalized yet, Busch said.

The board is expected to approve a $2.6 billion budget at its next meeting in June for the start of its fiscal year in July.

SEPTA faces a budget gap of $240 million, which officials worried would lead to service cuts and passenger fare increases. But if lawmakers adopt Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed budget, which includes $161 million for the transit agency, the budget situation would be less dire.

During the parking fee hiatus, some stations have been used by neighbors or visitors looking for extra street parking overnight — not just commuters.

“It is becoming a bit more of an issue now though that we have more ridership coming back and those spaces need to be set aside for people who are using SEPTA,” Busch said. “We’re seeing [parking lots] filling up, maybe not at pre-pandemic levels, but filling up on most days as a lot of people are on a hybrid work schedule.”

Overall, Regional Rail ridership has now rebounded to 64% of pre-pandemic levels.

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Ridership for the Lansdale/Doylestown train, which includes the Fort Washington train stop, has returned to 51% of pre-pandemic levels. Train service is back to 72% of pre-pandemic levels on weekdays.

SEPTA has been tweaking its suburban park-and-ride plans for years. For example, plans for a new parking garage in Conshohocken with 500 parking spots were paused last year.

SEPTA’s goal is to now expand its existing surface lot with 100 spaces or build a mixed-use development with residential units near the station. More details about those plans are expected to be shared later this year.

Ridership for the Manayunk/Norristown train, which includes the Conshohocken train stop, has returned to 75% of pre-pandemic levels. Train service is back to 93% of pre-pandemic levels on weekdays.

Still, the way some riders get to the train station is changing as there’s been an influx of residential apartments nearby transit hubs.

During a Friday morning rush hour, none of the dozen riders traveling to Center City drove to the Conshohocken station; instead, everyone walked there, they told WHYY News.

And that’s increasingly common, which keeps more commuters and traffic off I-76 and reduces the need for park-and-ride investments.

“We are seeing a shift to more of that and it’s great for us,” he said.

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