SEPTA shows off projects in the works at capital budget open house

Curious SEPTA aficionados were offered a sneak peek at what the authority plans to build and buy in the coming years at a pair of open houses Tuesday, part of SEPTA’s annual capital budget process.

There were not a whole lot of new things to reveal for the dedicated dozens who spent their lunch hours and happy hours discussing the latest in trolley engineering and subway station design with SEPTA staff. The annual capital budget process is an iterative evolution of the authority’s five- and twelve-year plans for construction and major procurement. The shifts from one year to the next tend to be small, not seismic.

The open houses have been happier affairs since 2013, when Harrisburg passed Act 89, a gas tax-fueled infrastructure investment bill. SEPTA’s capital funding from the Commonwealth jumped from around $120 million a year beforehand to $324 million this Fiscal Year 2017.* This coming fiscal year, that state figure will jump to around $352 million, thanks to a scheduled increase in Act 89’s fuel tax. SEPTA also expects a small bump in federal funds, going up from $227.5 million this year to $232 million, thanks in part to Congress’s passage of the FAST Act late in 2015.

SEPTA’s recent ridership woes won’t affect its capital budget, which covers large purchases (like vehicles), substantial repairs and new construction using state, federal and local tax dollars. SEPTA’s ridership revenues go towards its operating budget, which pays for expenses like salaries, minor maintenance, utilities and fuel.

The operating budget will bear the burden of the repairs and related expenses stemming from the widespread defects that sidelined all 120 of SEPTA’s Silverliner V rail cars this year. While SEPTA may ultimately be able to get the cars’ manufacturer to cover those costs, the crisis itself came to a close this week: The final two repaired railcars returned to service. But Regional Rail riders may continue to see leased MARC and NJ Transit on their commutes, at least until the end of next month, said SEPTA’s Assistant General Manager for Operations Ron Hopkins.

“We have a lease that extends through the end of February. We’re still catching up with some maintenance with all the work that we did,” said Hopkins. “We still have the use of them and… once we have all our vehicles up and running, we will send them back sometime in February.”

SEPTA officials have kept track of Act 89’s impact, listing 97 new capital projects since its enactment in 2014. The vast majority of those—70 projects totaling $430 million—are still ongoing, meaning riders have yet to really see results from the improved funding. Those completed haven’t been the flashiest of projects, mainly electrical substation rehabilitation, signal improvements, track replacement, and bridge repairs.

In other words, the out-of-sight but vital infrastructure that most of us don’t think about when we get on a train or bus. “In the long run, it’ll go a long way to improve the reliability of the system,” said Bob Lund, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for engineering, construction and maintenance.

That may start changing in the coming year. SEPTA Key’s slow rollout continues, and by summer riders should see the new payment system fully deployed for transit (buses, trolleys, and the subway/El), said Kevin O’Brien, senior program manager for SEPTA Key. The new fare technology’s debut has been marred by software problems. “We’re still working out the bugs, and there’s plenty of bugs,” said O’Brien. “That’s really what’s been holding us up recently with [token replacement].”

Currently, SEPTA Key holders can use their cards to replace token purchases using the “travel wallet” function. New users cannot buy a card just to replace tokens, but they can purchase a SEPTA Key with a weekly or monthly pass, and then afterwards add funds to the travel wallet in lieu of token purchases.

Starting around March, Regional Rail riders should start seeing SEPTA Key hardware at stations in Center City and in the outlying suburbs. According to O’Brien, SEPTA hopes to begin replacing Regional Rail’s paper tickets and passes sometime in the fall of 2018.

Other more visible improvements are still to come. Work has begun to overhaul stations at City Hall, the Arrott Transportation Center, 69th Street, Lansdale, Levittown, Secane, Paoli, Villanova, and Yardley, and others are in the offing. SEPTA released some renderings of its proposed reconstruction of the Wissahickon Transportation Center Tuesday night, but construction probably won’t break ground until 2020.

City transit riders may start seeing new arrival displays in subway and trolley stations next winter, which SEPTA hopes will be ready to display real-time arrival information by 2020. The back-end communications systems for the up-to-the-minute ETA displays will also feed into SEPTA’s websites and mobile apps.

Some of the projects might speed up if President Donald Trump delivers on his campaign promise for $1 trillion in new infrastructure funding. The administration has yet to release a formal proposal for the showy pledge, but during the election Trump called for $137 billion in tax credits to spur private sector infrastructure spending. Elaine Chao, Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Transportation, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have issued conflicting statements on direct federal spending, though. In her confirmation hearings, Chao said she and the President support direct federal spending. On the Charlie Rose Show, Ryan said he wants every federal dollar spent to generate $40 in private sector funds, and that the plan will need to pay for itself—meaning spending cuts elsewhere, as the Republican-controlled government is unlikely to increase taxes.

Should an infrastructure spending bill does pass, SEPTA has begun to put together a list of projects it will hope to begin sooner. If the bill only provides tax breaks for private sector projects, SEPTA is unlikely to see any of it. Privately financed infrastructure has to pay for itself through revenue streams like tolls—SEPTA’s transportation system, like non-tolled roads, doesn’t pay for itself, nor is it designed to. Either way, Ryan has said that the House won’t take up an infrastructure bill until after a budget is passed in the spring, meaning SEPTA would have to amend and update its capital budget to respond to the infrastructure bill, should it ever come to be.

SEPTA will hold public hearings in the spring with more details on the proposed FY 2018 budget, and its board is expected to vote on it at its June meeting.

*Note: SEPTA’s FY 2017 begins July 1st, 2016 and ends June 30, 2017. Private entities and government agencies alike can set fiscal years different from the calendar year, usually for budgetary purposes.

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