Transit crisis awaits a mayor

SEPTA, parking fees and a regional outlook are crucial issues facing the primary contenders.

One gauge of a city's health is its mobility.

A city that thrives is one where congestion doesn't become gridlock, where commuters, shoppers and beer trucks can coexist. Bustle is good, immobility is bad.

For Philadelphia's next mayor, the big transportation challenges will be to improve mass transit and deal with chronic traffic and parking problems. And the mayor will have to persuade skeptical suburbanites to help because the city's transportation network is the hub of a vast regional web.

"Where does transportation land on your priority list? It has to rate very highly," said Steven Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, citing transportation's importance to the region's economy.

Center City "can't continue to boom without a transportation policy," said Vukan Vuchic, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

As the mayoral campaign heads for the May 15 primary, SEPTA is $130 million in the hole, facing its latest budget crisis. Center City's newfound popularity is producing weekend traffic jams. A transit system designed for early 20th-century Philadelphia has trouble coping with sprawl and "reverse commuting." And ambitious proposals for new transit projects sprout like daffodils in April.

Among the city's most pressing transportation issues facing Philadelphia, local transportation experts cite these:

SEPTA funding. Without enough dedicated funding, SEPTA has to depend on a financial rescue from Harrisburg every year. That makes it hard for the agency to plan for next month, never mind the next decade, as it limps from budget crisis to budget crisis. Gov. Rendell has proposed a permanent tax on oil companies' gross profits to fund mass-transit agencies in Pennsylvania.

Transportation chief. Mayor Street did away with the Office of Transportation, so the responsibilities are spread among the office of strategic planning, the planning commission, and the streets department. A single person to oversee all transportation issues could streamline administration.

SEPTA board seats. Philadelphia has long felt slighted by its small representation on the SEPTA board. By state law, the city has two representatives on the 15-member board, the same as each of the four surrounding suburban counties. Any change requires an act of the state legislature.

Parking. The Philadelphia Parking Authority is now under state control, so the mayor has less sway over parking. But the issue remains one of the city's most vexing, with delivery trucks allowed to double-park, confusing street-parking rules, uneven enforcement, parking-lot rates that gouge short-term parkers, and no policies to encourage either mass transit use or remote parking.

Amtrak. A vital link for Philadelphia, Amtrak faces annual proposals from the Bush administration to deeply cut its federal subsidy and diminish service. A mayor can have little direct impact on Amtrak's funding but can join with regional political and business leaders to lobby on its behalf.

Safety. Roosevelt Boulevard is notoriously unsafe for motorists and pedestrians, and high-traffic intersections in Center City and elsewhere are often accidents waiting to happen, unpatrolled and unmonitored by police.

Maintenance. With responsibility for road maintenance divided between the city and the state, potholes and craters can go unattended for weeks. And old highway bridges that have outlived their expected life spans present a growing traffic and safety hazard.

Congestion. Philadelphia is less congested than many American cities, but Center City can quickly get clogged when a few intersections are blocked. And perennial bottlenecks on the Schuylkill Expressway, Vine Street Expressway, and I-95 are exposed every rush hour.

Transit technology. Philadelphia lags other cities, such as Washington and New York, in the automation and consistency of its mass-transit fare instruments. A major advance would be "swipe" tickets that could be recharged with a credit card or cash and used interchangeably on buses, subways, trains and PATCO. State-of-the-art ticket machines available at all rail and subway stations would attract riders to the system.

New routes. The city's subway, elevated and rail routes were created for an earlier incarnation of the city. New work and travel patterns may call for new mass-transit routes. Two of the most discussed are lines to the Navy Yard and to the Northeast along the Roosevelt Boulevard corridor.

The next mayor can be an ambassador for transit to the rest of the region, touting the benefits of a system that newer cities would love to have.

"They're trying to build the kind of system that we already have," said Wray of the Economy League. "...This is such an incredible asset for the city, which has been focused on cutting costs rather than thinking about what it could be."

 


Candidates on Transportation

All five Democratic primary candidates say they'd revive the city's office of transportation to coordinate transit-related issues. All favor trying to get more city seats on SEPTA's board and more dedicated funding for the agency.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady

He says his political connections (20 years as city Democratic chairman, 10 in Congress and 9 on the state turnpike board) could help on funding and other transit issues. "They look down their noses at us in the legislature," he said. ". . . I've known these guys since before they were legislators. And they all need something."

Would seek to return control of the Parking Authority to city.

Would woo suburban officials to make common cause on mass transit.

Would push to restore Route 23 trolleys to Germantown Avenue. Wants Broad Street subway extended to the Navy Yard. A subway extension along the Roosevelt Boulevard corridor "would eliminate all that congestion on the Boulevard and on I-95."

State Rep. Dwight Evans

He says his 27 years in the legislature would pay dividends on transit issues.

"Philadelphia and Harrisburg are hooked at the hip," says Evans, who is chairman of the House appropriations committee.

Cites his friendships with State Reps. Joseph Markosek and Richard Geist, the top Democrat and Republican on the House Transportation Committee.

A top priority: predictable funding for SEPTA.

Would repair SEPTA's relations with the local legislative delegation, "especially with African American members."

"You can't move a city and region forward with that kind of antagonism," he said. "And the tone has to be set by City Hall."

Wants more spent on care of roads, rails and bridges: "There is a direct connection between the growth of the region and taking care of this infrastructure."   

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah

He worries, despite a detailed transportation plan, that he's remembered only for one headline-catching idea: a "congestion-fee" proposal.

"It kind of got misconstrued," says Fattah, who suggested a feasibility study a fee on all cars entering Center City on workdays, to spur use of mass transit and reduce congestion. "There's $100 million available from the federal government to look at congestion issues ... but we're just talking about a study."

Says he will work with suburban and state leaders for more dedicated state funding for SEPTA.

Wants to use soon-to-expire SEPTA leases of subway, El and trolley infrastructure to try to negotiate better service for city residents and more city seats on the board.

Says proposals to rebuild I-95 as a subterranean highway "make some sense" if the city aspires "to be a world-class city."

Tom Knox

A former deputy mayor under Ed Rendell, Knox says he would work with the governor to find SEPTA funding that would pass legislative muster. Likes Rendell's proposed tax on oil profits.

Is willing to use city funds, if need be, to make all SEPTA stops clean, safe and well-lit. Wants bus stops equipped with maps and electronic fare boxes.

Wants SEPTA to create high-frequency "bus rapid transit" routes with dedicated lanes or synchronized traffic signals to speed service on major arteries.

Would seek federal funds to extend the Broad Street subway to the Navy Yard and for a subway or El extension to the Far Northeast.

Wants more spent on city road and bridge repairs.

Michael Nutter

He likes the Washington, D.C., subway system - "it's easy, it feels safe, and it's clean."

That's what he wants SEPTA to be.

Wants the legislature to create a Regional Mobility Commission to oversee operation of Philadelphia International Airport and to collect tolls from local roads and bridges, with money to be used for SEPTA, PATCO and road projects.

Cites his experience as chairman of the Convention Center as proof of his ability to work across local boundaries.

He said current parking rates dissuade shoppers from visiting the city; wants parking and road signage improved. Wants to remove litter and debris, especially around "gateways" at 30th Street Station and the airport.

Seeks creation of a universal fare card for SEPTA, PATCO and NJ Transit passengers.


 

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