Memo to SEPTA: Be careful what you ask for.
The state last week gave the Philadelphia region's long-suffering transit authority what it had always needed: money. Now, riders and politicians expect something in return: better service.
After years of blaming budget crises for its dingy subway stations, antiquated fare system, crowded trains, balky buses, and indifferent customer service, SEPTA has funding for this year and a dedicated, inflation-sensitive source of money for years to come.
Gov. Rendell on Wednesday signed a landmark transportation law, establishing new funding streams for mass-transit agencies. It provides about $156 million more in operating funds and $58 million more in capital funds for SEPTA this fiscal year, and eliminates the need for threatened service cuts or additional fare increases this year.
When he signed the bill, Rendell said he hoped SEPTA, and the state's other transit agencies, would use the money not to just stave off cuts but to "enhance some services."
He has lots of company.
Riders and area officials say they want changes both cosmetic and structural. They want better customer service, cleaner stations, reloadable electronic fare cards, ticket machines in every station, change from subway attendants and bus drivers, and better signs and maps.
"I would encourage the SEPTA board and staff to look positively toward the future," said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. "For far too long, SEPTA has been shackled by annual funding crises. While the new state budget does not give them unlimited resources, it does provide significant breathing room and a chance to focus on longer-term initiatives."
Expectations will certainly outstrip SEPTA's newfound revenue, and general manager Faye Moore is cautious about what might change.
"We were prudent with the taxpayers' dollars before, and we will continue to be prudent with the taxpayers' dollars," she said in an interview. "We're not going to rush into something just for the sake of doing something."
Moore defended SEPTA's performance record and said many customer complaints were just "rhetoric." She said the perception of SEPTA shortcomings was greater than the reality, "but we have to deal with perceptions."
"We lose focus sometimes that our greatest commodity is sitting right there, our customers," Moore said. "We have to hire more customer-oriented employees."
She said the biggest advantage of the new funding system is that it gives SEPTA the ability to plan ahead without worrying that the money won't be there.
"The flexibility to plan cannot be overstated," she said. "And the energy it frees up from the year-to-year battle over funding.
"We have to put SEPTA in a good state of repair. We have 70-year-old track; we have 85-year-old buildings."
Moore said SEPTA would use $27 million of the new money to restore capital projects that were postponed because SEPTA used the money to operate daily service instead.
Those projects include:
Fare collection. SEPTA plans to eventually replace its outmoded system of tokens and paper tickets with the kind of electronic system already in use in many other U.S. and foreign transit operations. Vending machines at stations will dispense reuseable electronic fare cards. But when? Moore said SEPTA would further study the systems other cities have before proceeding here. Last year, SEPTA shifted $3 million intended for planning a new fare system to daily operations. An additional $19 million is earmarked for fare-system upgrades by 2010.
New buses. SEPTA wants to buy 400 new 40-foot buses with automatic bus-stop announcements, bicycle racks, and other improvements. They may be diesel-electric hybrid buses, depending on cost. SEPTA has earmarked $160 million through 2010 and $450 million more through 2018 for the buses.
Subway station upgrades. To improve the deteriorating, 75-year-old Spring Garden and Girard stations, SEPTA plans to spend $30 million in the next two years on new lighting, signs, wall, floor and ceiling finishes, elevators, and an audio-visual public-address system. SEPTA shifted $5 million out of this project last year.
City Hall Station renovation. The busiest station on the Broad Street subway is also one of the dingiest. SEPTA plans to spend $22 million over the next three years to brighten, enlarge and modernize the 80-year-old station. SEPTA diverted $1 million for this project in last year's budget.
Regional Rail power. To reduce train delays and improve service, SEPTA plans to spend $66 million over the next three years to begin replacing power-supply substations. SEPTA diverted $8 million from this project last year.
Station safety. The "smart stations" project is supposed to improve passenger communications, safety and security with new audio-visual public-address systems, fire-suppression systems, and robbery alarms. About $56 million is earmarked through 2010 for the project, although $10 million of that was diverted last year to operations.
What should SEPTA change? Post your ideas at http://go.philly.com/fixsepta
Some ideas already posted by Inquirer readers:
"This one doesn't cost any money: Require that conductors announce every stop on the RR at night!"
"Token-booth clerks should know what's going on in terms of delays and alternate routes. Usually they'll say, 'They don't tell me anything.' In N.Y. there's a dry-erase board with closings and alternate routes in every token booth."
Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or email@example.com.