After years of foot-dragging and extending contract deadlines, SEPTA announced last week it would finally take a much-needed step toward the 21st century. The authority says it’s time to fund new payment technologies, including “Smart Cards”: SEPTA-issued, wallet-sized plastic that can be filled and refilled with cash, instead of buying tokens or a monthly/weekly pass. These new technologies, says SEPTA, would “modernize fare-collection methods” by employing digital-age gadgets not seen in Philly, well, ever.
“We’re hoping to jump two-to-three generations in technology,” says SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney. “Tokens go back to the 19th century. I believe SEPTA is the only major transit system in the U.S.—perhaps the world—that is still using tokens.”
There’s one problem.
SEPTA, which relies primarily on state funds for its operations, has a habit of saying one thing, doing another and making promises it can’t keep. A look at the authority’s never-ending delays in plan funding and contracts and how it spends what little money it has, gives us no indication that this shift into modernity is coming any time soon. And though the authority’s decisions are often clouded in secrecy, it’s probably a lot further away than SEPTA cares to admit.
Back in November 2008, a year after SEPTA’s initial announcement to go tokenless, the authority finally seemed destined for greatness. It put out a public call for proposals for its Smart Card system. A contract to begin a full revamp of SEPTA’s payment methods would be awarded by April 2009, and would likely cost upward of $100 million: Money SEPTA conceivably had in its share of the state budget. But the project hit a wall due to inadequate funding, extensions were made on final proposal awards and SEPTA provided virtually no details as to why. In March 2009, the April deadline was extended to May. On May 5, it was extended to June 23. On June 24, it was reportedly extended to Aug. 18. On Aug. 21, the deadline became Sept. 30. Now it’s 2010 and we’re not getting any younger.
But we did get an answer, finally. On March 12, 2010, SEPTA came clean, announcing its financial situation was worse than originally thought. Act 44 (the Transportation Reform Act), which was passed by the state Legislature in 2007 and established the Pennsylvania Public Transportation Trust Fund—$88.3 billion over a 50-year period for Pennsylvania transportation maintenance—was on the brink of a disaster. Part of Act 44’s funding relied on converting route I-80, which runs through the center of the state, into a toll road. This had yet to be done and if it failed completely, the authority would have to cut $110 million from its budget for fiscal year 2011.
Because of the route’s interstate status, Gov. Ed Rendell needed the federal government to OK the tolls. Throughout the spring, he’d lobby the Obama Administration to get it. The potential money raised from tolling the interstate would have paid for the Smart Card system and given PennDot the cash it needed to repair about 6,000 miles of road and at least 5,600 deficient bridges throughout Pennsylvania. Another $450 million would have been devoted toward other SEPTA capital projects, such as revamping the City Hall Station, which Maloney admits is “disgraceful,” “dark and smelly” and “needs a total renovation.” Rendell appeared confident they’d get the funding. But on April 6, the Obama Administration killed the idea of tolling I-80.
That didn’t stop Rendell from appealing the government’s decision. With a challenge to the feds still pending, SEPTA remained at least publicly confident the tolls would be a go. And even if they weren’t, we were repeatedly assured a Plan B was covertly in place to fund the new technologies.
On April 21, the SEPTA Youth Advisory Council, a student group created to better explain SEPTA’s systems to college-age Philadelphians, held a meeting at Penn in which Customer Service Manager Nilda Rivera-Frazier assured students that in spite of SEPTA having to “scale back improvements” with the loss of potential I-80 money, the new technologies were still “on the way.” When pressed about a Plan B, just in case the appeal for tolling I-80 didn’t go through, Frazier said she couldn’t yet reveal those options to the group.
After Rendell’s and others’ further attempts to toll I-80 proved fruitless, SEPTA would announce any and all updates with regard to updating its payment processes were put on hold, indefinitely.
But then ... wait for it ... on May 23, the authority changed its tune without warning, revealing a winning bid for new payment technology would be announced in June. SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams told reporters that in spite of threats to postpone a Smart Card system indefinitely, a deal had been reached with a funder, who had submitted “innovative” financing proposals that would break up the cost of construction “over a period of time”—though Williams wouldn’t give any further details about the $100 million system or the funder’s identity. Plan B existed, maybe, but there was no way to confirm or deny it. SEPTA essentially asked us to do the impossible: Trust them.
But the emotional rollercoaster persisted. June came and went. No Smart Card announcement.
In the meantime, the authority has been taking different routes to earn some extra dough, like a plan to allow advertising on the sides of trolleys and the El—in what’s being referred to by Jeff Randazzo, who handles advertising for SEPTA and PATCO, as “Phase One.” That also includes renaming Pattison Station AT&T Station, which will be the only train stop in Philadelphia that doesn’t refer to a local street, section or landmark. The naming rights initiative is part of a deal SEPTA made back in 2007, when Act 44 was passed and gave “marching orders … for us to use every means available to increase our outside income, particularly with advertising,” says Maloney. Renaming Pattison will net SEPTA a drop-in-the-bucket $5 million.
And you can’t make money without raising fares. On July 1, the first day of Fiscal year 2011, tokens went from $1.45 to $1.55. Weekly passes increased by $1.25 to $22. Monthly passes went from $78 to $83. Regional rail prices went up 8 percent. Paper transfers are now a dollar and daytime weekday off-peak train fares were eliminated.
Here’s something creative: In May, SEPTA sought to squeeze some cash out of BP Oil, claiming the company, as well as Halliburton and Transocean, “were all negligent” in building and running the infamous leaky rig in the Gulf of Mexico. SEPTA says it invested part of its pension funds in BP and sued to recover the more than $7.8 million it says was lost when BP’s stock tanked in the wake of the spill. The case is tied up in the courts.
And while SEPTA’s plans for massive Smart Card spending remain in secrecy, it has at the same time taken an up-front approach to smaller, bizarrely timed projects.
SEPTA dropped its color-coded R-label system and renamed its regional rail lines by their end destinations, saying this would simplify traveling. It cost $50,000.
SEPTA also introduced some Internet “features,” like a ReadyNotifyPA emergency text and email system that’ll send you updates if trains and buses are running late, similar to what SEPTA has already done through Twitter and its RSS feed. And then there’s the Chat Now service: From 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends, log onto SEPTA.com and have an instant-messenger chat with a live SEPTA customer-service representative.
These small projects and others like them have been part of an ongoing venture for the past decade, says Maloney, and are part of SEPTA’s $100 million control center that can track each bus and train within the city, to the inch.
A union contract with City Hall ensures that injured SEPTA employees can keep working as cashiers. There's only one problem with the arrangement: Does anybody know what the cashiers do?