SEPTA budget picture is grim

March 12, 2010

By Anthony Campisi

For PlanPhilly

SEPTA finally laid bare the devastating effects failing to toll Interstate 80 would have on the system.

At a press conference Friday, the authority announced it plans to defer or cancel 20 projects worth more than $200 million. SEPTA officials also released details about operating and capital budget proposals for fiscal year 2011.

“This budget is bad news,” SEPTA chairman Pat Deon said, noting it would severely hurt the authority’s capital plans.

 SEPTA general manager Joe Casey said that, in effect, all capital projects that the authority hasn’t already released contracts for would be canceled.

All major expansion and modernization projects — including the smart card system, the City Hall station renovations and the expansion of rail service to Wawa — would be on the chopping block.

Other less visible maintenance projects would also be delayed, including $67 million for replacing aging regional rail power substations, $44 million for interlocking and signal improvements on the Paoli line and $32.5 million for improvements to the Margaret-Orthodox El station to make it handicapped accessible.

And projects that would still continue, such as the Silverliner V railcar deliveries, would be made more complicated. SEPTA CFO and treasurer Richard Burnfield said the authority might have to find a third party to buy the cars and enter into a long-term lease agreement in order to find the money to complete the purchase.

Though Deon said this disaster scenario could be avoided if the Federal Highway Administration approves Pennsylvania’s request to toll I-80, he said that Gov. Rendell put the odds of that happening at 50 percent. “We’re in trouble here,” Deon said, adding that losing the $120 million in anticipated fiscal year 2011 funding from Act 44 would again put SEPTA on a downward spiral of disinvestment and decreased service.

He called on the state’s congressional delegation to push for approval, saying that “U.S. Senators [Arlen Specter and Bob Casey] can make this thing happen.” Deon, who also sits on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said that the Turnpike won’t issue bonds to cover the state transportation funding shortfall if I-80 tolling fails, because doing so would be fiscally irresponsible and would lower the commission’s debt rating.

He declined to speculate on the chances of the Legislature enacting a gas tax or other revenue booster to fill the fiscal hole in the wake of a federal denial, noting the difficulty in getting Act 44 signed in the first place. “Pennsylvania has done its job,” he said.

The authority’s operating budget proposal was less dire. Because Act 44 funding won’t immediately affect operating funding, SEPTA is planning on raising fares by 6 percent, which is in line with expectations and with inflation since the last fare increase in 2007.
The base fare for buses, trolleys and subways will remain at $2.

Token prices will rise 10 cents to $1.55, a monthly TransPass will go from $78 to $83 and a three zone monthly TrailPass will go from $142.50 to $157.

The authority is predicting the fare hike will have a minimal impact on riders, causing ridership declines of 1.2 percent on the City Transit Division, 1.1 percent on the Suburban Transit Division and 2.4 percent on regional rail. SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said that the authority is expecting an overall decrease in ridership of about 1 percent.

But for transit advocates, the devil is in the details. Bob Clearfield, a vice chairman of the Citizen Advisory Committee, said the CAC leadership was against a proposal to raise the transfer rate 25 cents to $1. He said that SEPTA faced a court battle in 2007, when it tried to eliminate the transfer, and that the fare hike would price it out of range of customers.

In response to these concerns, Burnfield said that the fare increase had passed a Title VI review. He added that a series of public hearings will provide a forum to discuss these concerns.

Matt Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers leveled more intense criticism at SEPTA, saying that the advocacy group “cannot support this package.” He cited the elimination of weekday off-peak fares on regional rail and merging zones four and five for single-ticket sales as examples of SEPTA trying to ram major policy changes through without adequate analysis or public debate.

“This is not the time to reopen old battles with the customers and with the city,” Mitchell said, adding that the authority should instead be putting its energies toward getting I-80 tolled. He accused SEPTA of trying to achieve policy goals, like the elimination of transfers, in a “piecemeal” fashion.

DVARP hasn’t received answers to anticipated ridership impacts of these changes and is concerned that doing things like eliminating weekday off-peak fares could cause higher ridership on already full commuter trains. “They’d better come prepared to the hearings,” he said, adding that the authority should hold off on fare policy changes until the smart card system, which will give SEPTA more flexibility in collecting fares, is implemented.

Williams, the SEPTA spokeswoman, said that only 5 to 10 percent of riders will be affected by plans to eliminate weekday off-peak fares. Instead of those changes, Mitchell said that he would have preferred SEPTA raise the base fare to bring in the needed revenue.

“Not increasing the cash base fare is entirely a public relations thing,” he said, adding that the proposed token price hike reduces the incentive for riders to buy tokens instead of paying with cash, which costs SEPTA more money in processing expenses. “We didn’t want to be put in the position of opposing this,” Mitchell said.

Asked for comment, Burnfield said, in a statement, that “the purpose of the public hearings is to gather input and insight from organizations and individuals.” He added that SEPTA will review all the recommendations and suggestions it receives, including those from DVARP.

SEPTA will be holding a series of public hearings through April to discuss both the operating and capital budgets, with a SEPTA Board vote scheduled for May 27.

A schedule of the public hearings follows:

Operating budget public hearings

Montgomery County: April 14, 2 p.m.
Montgomery County Human Service Center
Community Room — Main Floor
1430 Dekalb Pike
Norristown, PA 191404

Chester County: April 15, 2 p.m.
West Chester Borough Hall
Council Chambers
401 E. Gay St.
West Chester, PA 19380

Delaware County: April 15, 2 p.m.
Delaware County Court House
County Council Meeting Room
201 W. Front St.
Media, PA 19063

Philadelphia: April 19, 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
SEPTA Headquarters
1234 Market St.
Board Room — Mezzanine Level

Bucks County: April 20, 2 p.m.
Pearl Buck Meeting Room
150 S. Pine St.
Doylestown, PA 18901

Capital Budget hearing
April 21 in Philadelphia. Time to be determined.

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