SEPTA stumbles across $33 million in savings, socks it away for a rainy day

A picture is worth a thousand words, but for SEPTA, videos are worth even more. The transit authority credits new cameras on its vehicles for dramatically reducing its lawsuit payments last year, resulting in $26 million in unbudgeted savings.

Add in lower-than-expected fuel costs and a relatively mild winter (notwithstanding one massive blizzard) and SEPTA’s expenses for the fiscal year ending this month were $33 million less than anticipated.

So why are legal claims against SEPTA so surprisingly low?  

“Cameras, cameras, cameras,” said Deputy Managing Director Rich Burnfield.

SEPTA started installing surveillance cameras on all its vehicles a few years ago, and recently launched a body camera program for its police officers. As a result, SEPTA is armed with video evidence to refute bogus injury claims, leading to more dropped lawsuits and fewer settlements. And when the tape tells the tale of SEPTA’s liability, the authority’s lawyers know to settle sooner rather than later.

On top of that, Pennsylvania’s Fair Share Act, passed in 2011, has reduced the size of some claims against SEPTA, said Burnfield. The Fair Share Act significantly reduced the applicability of joint and several liabilities in negligence cases. In non-legal English: before, if SEPTA was found 10 percent at fault for a plaintiff’s injuries, it could still be forced to cover for 100 percent of the damages; now SEPTA’s liability is capped at its fault percentage, for the most part.

SEPTA is squirrelling away the bonus savings for a rainy day, transferring the money into its service stabilization fund. The stabilization fund acts as a cash cushion for SEPTA, helping the authority handle unexpectedly high expenses (like if gas prices suddenly skyrocketed) or budgeting snags (like when Harrisburg delays passing a budget). With the added $33 million, the fund now stands at $82 million. That may seem like a lot of cash sitting around, but it’s a fraction of the authority’s $1.4 billion budget.

Why not spend it immediately? After all, some improvements, like SEPTA Key, seem to crawl along like an ant. But, like Aesop’s fable, SEPTA’s ant like prudence has served it well compared to some transit authority’s more grasshopper-esque tendencies.

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