SEPTA: New money only goes so far

SEPTA general manager Joseph M. Casey, here in the Market East Station, uses the system himself to commute from his home in Elwyn, using the Media line. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Now that SEPTA’s got some money, there’s a lot of clamoring, general manager Joseph M. Casey said, for projects that would extend SEPTA’s reach into the suburbs in various ways. Even then, the question is how to get riders from the nearest SEPTA stop, be it bus or rail, to their offices – the last-mile question. “That’s the dilemma,” Casey said during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. “The population of this region hasn’t changed that much in the last 20 or 30 years. You just have sprawl. And we, as an agency, can’t continue chasing that sprawl.

“When businesses develop, they should think about how the people get to work. Until recently, it was people would drive and we’ll build parking lots,” Casey said. “Now when the price of gas goes up, they think transit: Wouldn’t it be nice to have transit? But it has to be part of the development and planning and land use.”

In the past, he said, there were “all these small railroad towns,” like Glenside, or Ambler, or Lansdale. People “walked downtown. They walked to train.  But [through] all these years, the people and businesses who worked in those towns spread out and made those stations less efficient.”

 What’s working, he said, are developments like the residential building right next to the train station at Temple University, and a proposed project near the Conshohocken station. “That’s what should be done all the time -- facilitate what’s currently there.”

One of the top projects on Casey’s list is an extension of a rail line into King of Prussia from Norristown. “I think the King of Prussia expansion makes a lot of sense. I’ve been pushing that all along. When you have all that Schuylkill Expressway traffic getting there, our buses are stuck in that traffic also.”

But, he cautioned, the new, dedicated funding from the state can only be used to repair and maintain existing infrastructure, not to underwrite new projects. SEPTA officials estimate that it would take $658 million a year for 20 years to repair the backlog of problems that need attention.

In our interview, he talked about bridges being a particular concern. Another problem are seven aging locomotives, all long past their normal life. “They are costing me a lot of delays and breakdowns,” he said. Those seven locomotives, he said, have as many problems as the entire rest of the 350-vehicle rail fleet. “That gives you an idea of how troublesome they are,” he said.