Philadelphians love to complain about SEPTA. But what happens when there’s no SEPTA left to complain about? That’s one of the most important issues state lawmakers will attempt to hammer out when they reconvene on Sept. 23. They’ll attempt to pass a $2 billion-plus state transportation bill, which will include new and maintenance funding for roads, bridges and yes, mass transit.
Passing it is considered a high priority by the state government. But just like everything else that gets packed in and shredded out the Capitol’s grinder in small shards, the state’s divided government doesn’t know how much to spend and what to spend it on. All we know is that not passing it will add another dimension to the nightmare that is Philadelphia’s economic recovery. How do we know? Because SEPTA recently gave us a sneak peak of what non-passage might mean: a plan they aptly named their “Doomsday Budget.”
Every spring in Harrisburg, legislators from both parties, in both the House and Senate, come together to celebrate budget season. Insults are exchanged, bills are proposed, bills are withdrawn, protesters have been known to camp out for their issues, and somehow, a budget for the next fiscal year gets tossed out the back end.
This past legislative session, the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Corbett had hoped to pass at least one of the “Big three” anticipated bills: transportation, liquor privatization and pension reform. But there was a problem: No one could agree on any of them. So none were passed.
Now, transportation is considered the most time-sensitive legislation for the fall—and may have the largest direct effect on how Philadelphians live their lives. It will determine the next decade of our massively underfunded mass transit system’s life.
As originally written by the Senate, the transportation bill was a massive $2.5 billion spending and tax-morphing bill (don’t call it an increase) that would have allocated money for Pennsylvania’s 1,000 decrepit bridges as well as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. It provided enough money (about $510 million) to at least let SEPTA maintain its status quo through 2017 (though SEPTA says it really needs about $6 billion).
After a more conservative House committee got a hold of it last spring, the bill shrunk to about $2 billion. In any other year, that would have easily passed the legislature and been signed by the governor. But the state House was largely taken over by Tea Party Republicans in 2011. So cutting a half-billion dollars wasn’t nearly enough. Because after all, state legislators in places most of us have never heard of were sick and tired of believing their tax dollars are paying for our bus and train rides.
This was perhaps best exemplified by a heated email exchange the Harrisburg news source Capitol Wire picked up in early May between two Republicans from opposite Pennsylvania borders: Tea Party state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County, which is about 30 miles from the Ohio line; and moderate Tom Killion of Delaware County.
“Your buses don’t do a thing for my constituents,” Metcalfe wrote to his fellow Republican. “How about we pay for your state roads and bridges, and you pay for your own buses? It is only fair since we only receive funding for our roads and bridges too.”
Killion argued that 40 percent of Pennsylvania economic activity takes place in the southeastern portion of Pennsylvania—implying that without Philly, Pennsyltucky’s days of relevancy would be numbered.
But that fell on Metcalfe’s deaf ears: “State expenditures should go to the common interests of the state, not special interests, like subsidizing a minority of our population’s bus fare, which is just more welfare.”
Despite ridership being at a 23-year high, SEPTA has been operating on a shoestring budget for years. Its capital budget is at a 15-year low of $308 million—less than half of Boston’s MBTA budget and just a quarter the size of New Jersey Transit’s budget.
Thing is, there’s no evidence to suggest transportation will actually be at the top of the Senate’s and House’s list when they get back in session on Sept. 23. So SEPTA has gone ahead and told us what they’re ready to do if the 253 legislators and the governor can’t come up with something by the time winter break begins.
“Casey told the committee SEPTA would be forced to significantly shrink the current transit system over the next 10 years without state funding action,” SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch wrote in an email to reporters last Thursday.
What’s SEPTA’s shrinkage mean for you? That depends. Do you live in West Philadelphia? Say goodbye to your trolleys along Lancaster and Baltimore Avenues—they’d be converted to bus routes, either next year or by 2016. So would the Girard trolley from West Philly to Port Richmond.
Are you a regional commuter? The Doomsday Budget would eliminate nine of the region’s 13 regional lines over the next 10 years, including Chestnut Hill East, Chestnut Hill West, Thorndale and Doylestown.
SEPTA estimates about 12 percent of its ridership would be eliminated and either have to find another way to work, or let the free market do its job and find another. For a city that’s experiencing population growth, an increase in transit ridership and declining car ownership, cutting more transit funds comes across as nothing short of malevolent.
Metcalfe, for his part, isn’t buying it. SEPTA, he says, is “trying to scare people. With the legislature coming back, this is a good time to roll it out there, but I think it’s going to backfire,” the Butler County Republican told the Inquirer. “It’s a very small minority of people who actually ride the buses…it’s hundreds of millions of dollars for a very small percentage of the population of our state.”
We’d like to be hopeful about the bill over the coming weeks, but the idea of sabotaging a northeastern state’s urban economic hub in the name of cutting “welfare” and using the leftover cash to fund the natural gas industry has the Tea Party’s signature all over it.
PW's Summer Guide 2015