Still, perhaps Harrisburg will come through and save SEPTA at the last minute, as they have in the past. Dick Voith, an economist at Econsult and a former Philadelphia representative on the SEPTA board, hopes so. But this time, he concedes, the Tea Party moment makes things uncertain. That businessman’s end-of-the-day certainty that government serves some important, nonpartisan functions is vanishing.
“You can’t have Philadelphia without a good transit system,” he says. “End of story. You can’t have suburban Philadelphia.”
Pennsylvania politics have turned toward life, liberty and limited government. And conservatives have long expended considerable energy to apply that last principle to Philadelphia.
The Broad Street Line connects with the El and trolleys, but visions of a more comprehensive transit complex have never been realized.
Just before 3 p.m. on a Tuesday in May, I walked into a SEPTA board meeting full of white men, a stark contrast to the diversely populated and majority-black trolley and El train I had taken there from West Philly. The suburbs dominate SEPTA, even though city riders make up 83 percent of fares and Philadelphia provides more than four times as much local funding as the four suburban counties combined.
In SEPTA’s rendition of democracy, each county, Philadelphia included, gets two representatives on the SEPTA board; the governor also gets a seat, along with the House and Senate majority and minority leaders.
Even the organization that represents SEPTA riders, the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, has traditionally been run by commuter-rail users. Philly’s riders have nothing like the Bus Riders Union, Los Angeles’ grassroots organization of transit users, to represent them.
SEPTA has been skewed toward the suburbs since its creation, when the federal government — after decades of building highways like the two that were rammed through Center City — passed the first major legislation to fund mass transit in 1964. SEPTA and City Hall immediately got behind a plan to spend their share of the money: a $300 million tunnel connecting suburban commuter lines at Suburban, 30th Street and the planned Market East stations. Urban transit riders, from East Poplar to the Richard Allen Homes to Chinatown to the Northeast, protested and argued discrimination. The commuter-rail tunnel, a federal lawsuit alleged, would result in suburban riders receiving $3,000 per rider in annual federal subsidies, compared to $187 per rider for city dwellers.
Regional leaders had prioritized suburban vehicle commuters for decades; now they decided to embrace suburban train commuters instead.
“You had a perfect storm in the 1970s, and everything that could go wrong went wrong,” says Jake Kobrick, a historian who wrote his dissertation on the history of Philadelphia transportation. Inflation drove maintenance and labor costs up nationwide, and cities teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. “The most astonishing part of the entire story is that, in the midst of this perfect storm in the 1970s, SEPTA and Philadelphia pushed ahead with the commuter connection.”
Meanwhile, construction delays and skeptical federal officials wreaked havoc on Philly’s federal transit funds. By late 1969, the Philadelphia region had received just $4.8 million in Urban Mass Transportation Act funding, while the New York City, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco regions received $100 million apiece. SEPTA’s tunnel was finally completed in 1984.
Today, funding is still biased toward the well-to-do. A federal grant funds the Center City District’s ambitious $50 million remaking of City Hall’s Dilworth Plaza into a higher-end destination, while SEPTA lacks the funds to complete $100 million in renovations to the station underneath. Indeed, City Paper discovered in April that the privately run Center City District had beaten out SEPTA’s own application for stimulus funds, money the agency intended to spend on a new smart-card fare system.
SEPTA ultimately secured $175 million from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. to pay for the fare-system upgrade. But the funding — from the Immigrant Investor Program’s Welcome Fund, a controversial federal program through which foreign investors get permanent residency in exchange for investments — highlights the bizarre measures to which cash-strapped SEPTA must resort.
The urban-suburban divide, however, is an oversimplification. Ultimately, suburbanites and city dwellers will need to pass something like a five-county transit tax to help fund the system fully. And Philadelphians use suburban lines too — particularly the working poor who depend on trains, buses and trolleys to commute to the many jobs that have relocated to megastores, malls and office parks over past decades. The much larger issue is that the entire five-county system needs more cash. And it always has, because SEPTA never recovered from the for-profit mess it took over upon the agency’s 1964 creation.
The federal government invested enormous sums in highways and mortgage assistance for whites-only suburban homes after World War II. The urban population scattered and mass-transit ridership — along with Philadelphia’s clout in Harrisburg — plummeted. The car symbolized the height of American individuality, while subways evoked Soviet collectivism. By the 1950s, the privately owned subways, buses, trolleys and commuter lines had descended into crisis. Between 1968 and 1983, SEPTA took over the various companies that ran those lines to save mass transit from collapse.
The Philadelphia Transportation Company, which ran the city train, bus and trolley lines, “had a terrible public-relations image,” says Kobrick. “On day one, SEPTA became responsible for that. And I don’t think they’ve ever recovered.
By 1974, the city Department of Public Property reported that Philadelphians considered transit to be “dirty, dark and unsafe.” WCAU television news described subway and El cars as “strewn with filth, drunks, graffiti and junkies. The dark, dank stations reek of who knows what, and shelter muggers and rapists.” Later that decade, fires on the Broad Street Line caused dozens of injuries.
The newborn transit agency was both ahead of its time and way, way behind. Ahead, because it was a regional operation from the start — cities like Boston and New York took over private urban mass transit in the 1940s and ’50s and only decades later created regionally governed authorities. But behind, because SEPTA was one of the last systems to remain under private ownership, left to deteriorate as other cities reinvested in mass transit.
Initially, SEPTA hoped to catch up quickly. After visiting transit systems in London and Paris in 1971, SEPTA chairman James McConnon proposed a “total transit complex” for Philadelphia, with more subway and rapid-transit lines for greater flexibility.
The nickel-and-diming of transit has long since foreclosed on the possibility of dreaming big.
But some of those dreams are mouthwatering: There are proposals, for example, to add a Market-Frankford line station between 15th and 30th streets, to extend the Broad Street line south to the Navy Yard and to increase the number of Regional Rail stops inside city limits.