Phila. threatens to seize subways from SEPTA

The city has told the transit agency that it might reclaim part of the subway system unless it is granted "certain rights."

Philadelphia is trying to get more clout with SEPTA by threatening to take its subways and go home.

The city owns the Broad Street subway and half of the Market-Frankford Subway-Elevated line, both of which it leased to SEPTA in 1968 when the transportation agency was created.

The lease was written to expire on Dec. 31, 2005, or when SEPTA made the last of its required rent payments, whichever came later. In 2005, unable to agree on whether the lease was about to expire, the city and SEPTA extended the lease until the end of 2007.

So, in theory, SEPTA could be required to return the subways by the end of this year. That is very unlikely to happen, for several reasons.

For one thing, the two sides agreed the lease could be extended for one more year - to the end of 2008 - at the request of either party. For another, the city isn't especially interested in running a transit system that consists of 11/2 subways.

As negotiations over a new lease continue between the two sides, the city is using the sessions to air its long-standing grievances about having too little power and getting too little respect.

"We are not seeking to undermine a regional transit system that SEPTA operates, but we have certain rights as the owner of significant parts of the system," said city solicitor Romulo Diaz Jr. "The current arrangement isn't working as it should."

"That's not to say we want to take back our piece of the infrastructure."

"What we're looking for is an arrangement that recognizes the importance of public transit and respects the authority of the City of Philadelphia in transit decisions," Diaz said. "We have little governance participation in comparison to our ownership and ridership."

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Phila.) has made the lease negotiations a part of his campaign for mayor, arguing that the city should be able to use its leverage at the table to increase the city's role in SEPTA decision-making.

Philadelphia has two seats on the 15-member SEPTA board and veto power over decisions it opposes.

The makeup of the board is determined by the state legislature, and SEPTA officials say there is little SEPTA can do to increase Philadelphia's clout.

"The state legislature decides governance - we don't control that," said SEPTA chief financial officer Joseph M. Casey. "They want input into our decision-making process. We already have monthly meetings with city and county officials. They have two representatives on the board. We don't know what we can give them."

Casey said that unless progress is made soon in negotiations with the city, he expects SEPTA to exercise its right to extend the lease to the end of 2008. The two sides have met three times since December; they last met on Feb. 14.

SEPTA argues that since it will be paying for Market-Frankford cars until 2029, the lease can't expire until then. The city argues that SEPTA can't hold the city hostage to endlessly extended debt obligations.

In addition to the Broad Street subway and cars, the city owns the Frankford Elevated line from Second Street to Bridge Street. SEPTA contends it owns all the passenger cars that run on the Market-Frankford line; the city contends it owns half of them. SEPTA also owns the buses that operate on city streets.

Regional rail and suburban transit assets are not covered by the lease with the city.

The city transit division has spent $3.6 billion on its assets since the lease took effect in 1968, Casey said. Of that capital funding, $2.2 billion has come from the federal government and $1.3 billion from state government, he said.

Part of the city's grievance with SEPTA is about attitude. Diaz said SEPTA does not respect the city or its riders.

"No one comes to the city and says, 'How do we make that happen?' or 'How should we make these cuts?' " said Diaz. "There has to be a consultation arrangement that really respects the role of Philadelphia."

"If we had a respectful relationship, a lot of these issues could go away," said Diaz.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.