SEPTA's fiscal challenges
How do we know when people value something? Answer: They use it. By this measure, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), the commuter rail and public transportation provider for the greater Philadelphia region, is something of great value.
In 2012, area residents took more than 339 million trips on buses, subways, commuter trains, and trolleys. Over the past six years, annual trips have increased by 42 million, or 14 percent. In short, SEPTA provides critical mobility for millions of people every day, connecting them to work, family, recreation, and health care.
Unfortunately, this vital backbone of the community faces stark fiscal challenges. Without new money, SEPTA will be forced to shut down multiple high-use transit lines, leaving many without any viable option to get where they need to go. According to a recent brief by SEPTA, the lack of adequate funding will mean (among other reductions) eliminating service on nine of 13 regional commuter rail lines, including Cynwyd in 2014, Media/Elwyn in 2015, Chestnut Hill West in 2018, and West Trenton, Airport, Warminster, Wilmington/Newark, Fox Chase, and Chestnut Hill East in 2023.
When implemented, these cuts would leave 89,000 daily riders - more than 40 million each year - without rail service. The loss of service would mean more congestion on already overburdened roadways and an inability for many low-income, elderly (about 80,000 seniors take SEPTA daily), and other transit-dependent residents to meet their most basic needs.
Agency managers and planners deserve great credit for keeping the legacy system running as well as it does. The $300 million budget for construction and repair needs is the lowest it has been in 15 years. At a certain point, dollars just can't stretch any further. SEPTA is rapidly reaching that point. The fiscal challenges facing the region stem from a lack of leadership in Washington and structural barriers to success emanating from Harrisburg.
Let's start with Washington. Beginning 15 years ago, Congress eliminated the ability of big-city public transportation authorities to use their federal money to cover daily operating costs. This resulted in service cuts, including lost routes, reduced hours, and long wait times between buses and trains. For some agencies, this also meant increased deferred maintenance, as planners shifted money from repairs to ensure that remaining buses and trains kept running. The bill for deferred maintenance is coming due. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently rated the condition of transit infrastructure in Pennsylvania a D-minus.
Congress has also failed to provide enough money for basic system repair or the kind of long-term funding stability that agencies need to conduct meaningful planning. The most recent transportation bill provided only two years of funding and will expire in September 2014. The next bill should boost total funding for transit and guarantee money for at least six years.
With little help from Washington, SEPTA has turned to state legislators. Unfortunately, Harrisburg has been both unable and unwilling to provide enough assistance. One of the largest barriers to improving transit service is written into the state constitution. Currently, none of the money collected from the state tax on gasoline may be used for public transportation. Moreover, neither Gov. Corbett's transportation proposal nor those introduced in the legislature will provide real money for transit. And while highway construction and repair are important, the densely developed Philadelphia region needs a mix of road and transit money. Yet the constitution does not allow this - forcing legislators to rob Peter to pay Paul.
Reversing the dire situation facing SEPTA will not be easy. The agency estimates it will need roughly $6.5 billion over the next 10 years to address maintenance needs and avoid major service cuts. And while these numbers may seem daunting, the consequences of inaction are unacceptable. The economy can only grow as fast as its transportation system can move it. And without leadership in Harrisburg and Washington, Southeastern Pennsylvania's economy will be stuck in the mud.
State leaders should begin the process of amending the constitution and, in the short term, advance a transportation bill that meets the needs of all Pennsylvania residents by providing robust money for both highways and public transportation. The region's future depends on it.
Kevin DeGood is director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress. firstname.lastname@example.org