Getting city workers to suburban jobs is tough. A program trying to help is under threat

Just about every railroad track in SEPTA’s system — and PATCO’s, too — was placed where it is to get workers to jobs. When those systems were built, that meant getting into Philadelphia.

A lot has changed since those rails were put down in the first half the 20th century; Philadelphia isn’t the employment hub it was then. Now, about 232,000 people, close to 40 percent of the city’s working population, leave the city each day for their jobs. And suburban employment is diffuse, decentralized, and for many of the city’s poor, virtually inaccessible.

>>READ MORE: The long ride

While redesigning SEPTA’s service and encouraging more employers to come to the city or locate near transit hubs may be long-term solutions, the Philadelphia Unemployment Project is trying to respond to today’s reality. Its executive director, John Dodds, noted that about 80 percent of the region’s commuters get to work by driving, but 36 percent of Philadelphians don’t have a car. The PUP has created a car-pool service to get workers to suburban jobs not easily accessible by public transportation.

“The way the suburbs are set up,” Dodds said, “they’re set up for cars.”

So far he has 64 people who take advantage of 13 car pools, a tiny number in the context of Philadelphia’s 25 percent poverty rate, the worst of any big city in the country. He believes, though, that a scaled-up car-pool service is a viable supplement to connect the city’s poor with jobs. Yet even as Dodds considers a broader service, he’s facing the possibility of losing what already exists.

The 12-year-old program has had multiple sources of funding over the years but more recently has relied heavily on PennDot to provide the $367,000 budget. State funding requires a 15 percent match, but the program has had trouble finding the money. It has now turned to the city, which has never contributed to the program. Dodds is concerned that Mayor Kenney has not yet committed to including in the coming year city budget the $55,000 needed to sustain the program. The program does have the support of 13 of Philadelphia’s 17 Council members.

At a news conference Wednesday at City Hall, Dodds, City Council members, and car-pool participants pleaded not just for the matching funds needed, but for a $250,000 commitment from the city — enough money to expand the program to aid 300 people.

“We’ve got to find a way to make this system work,” said Randy Barge, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Olney. “SEPTA is not going to be able to provide bus service throughout the suburbs.”

The mayor’s office sidestepped the question of whether Kenney would support the request for funding, saying it was working with SEPTA on projects like trolley modernization and an upgrade to the bus network to improve job access.

PennDot reported that it could continue funding the program conditionally, but a municipal source of funding would have to be found.

Darryl Douglass, 62, gets to a manufacturing job in Swedesboro, N.J., by meeting a car-pool driver on John F. Kennedy Boulevard about 1:15 p.m. each workday. The 30-minute commute takes a third the time it would take for him to try to get to the job by public transportation, which would involve a bus ride and walking more than a mile.

“I wouldn’t be going over to Jersey unless I was guaranteed a ride there and back,” he said.

The PUP finds riders and drivers from job-placement organizations. Drivers are selected from those who have licenses and are approved by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which provides the vehicles. The drivers are given the vehicles to use as their own within some limits, as long as they provide rides to others, Dodds explained. Drivers and riders alike pay $6-a-day round trip.

Council members Cherelle Parker and Helen Gym spoke in favor of the program. Parker described it as a tool that could boost people living in city neighborhoods at Philadelphia’s borders.

“This is about neighborhood preservation for me,” Parker said.

Whether a car-pooling service is an effective answer to the disconnect between workers and jobs is uncertain, though. Seattle offers a van share and van pool program that served about 11,000 riders in 2016, according to King County Metro. But Philadelphia’s unemployment rate of about 5 percent, or close to 50,000 people, may be more significant than a pool service can effectively address.

>>READ MORE: An ‘uncomfortable’ life: Philly still America’s poorest big city

“The hardest thing you can ask public transit to do is to really serve low-density and scattered locations,” said Jon Orcutt, communications director for the New York philanthropic organization TransitCenter. “It’s one of the things we don’t do well in the United States is to sort of match up where people are to where they need to be.”

Gym, in an interview after the event, acknowledged that car pooling wouldn’t solve the problem of unemployment and job access but said that broadening this service was a step toward getting past municipal divides and thinking of employment as a regional problem.

“Programs like this help you get started,” she said, “help you get started.”

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow @BrokeInPhilly