Nonetheless, nationwide ridership continues to make historic gains: Americans took 5 percent more rides in the first quarter of 2012 than they did a year earlier — 125.7 million additional trips. Last week, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and Good Jobs First announced the creation of Americans for Transit to fight cuts and help rider organizations protest nationwide. “Transit is a major social-justice issue of our day,” says ATU International president Larry Hanley. “Ridership is the highest in decades, but riders have suffered the worst wave of fare hikes and service cuts in postwar history.”
The City Hall Station and concourse system haven’t seen a major renovation since its construction in 1928.
“We’re Getting There,” as locals know, is SEPTA’s slogan, often mocked for its defeatist undertone. Just five years ago, though, it seemed possible that the transit agency could truly arrive.
Act 44 of 2007, a bill intended as a permanent fix for Pennsylvania’s perennial transportation-funding problem, was set to generate about $900 million in annual infrastructure funding. But though the bill passed, it had a fatal flaw: About half of that planned revenue was slated to come from new tolls on I-80, a move the Federal Highway Administration rejected. Three times. The state borrowed money to boost funding to SEPTA and other transportation projects for the next three years, but had to start making deep cuts in 2010. SEPTA’s annual capital budget took a $110 million hit.
When the agency’s rainy-day fund runs dry in July 2013, SEPTA riders could find themselves revisiting the very moment Act 44 was supposed to ensure never, ever happened again.
The date was Nov. 11, 2004, and SEPTA, facing a $62 million deficit, announced what would come to be known as the “doomsday scenario”: Fares would rise by 25 percent, weekday service would be cut by 20 percent and mass layoffs would be implemented on Jan. 23 of the following year. On March 1, fares would spike again and more workers would be cut. Weekend service would be entirely eliminated.
Activists, however, were ready. The year before, a coalition with roots ranging from wealthy Chestnut Hill to North Philly’s Nicetown had fought SEPTA’s proposal to cut the R8 commuter line. But in 2004, SEPTA and the activists, who just the previous year had been on opposite sides of protests, joined together to fight Harrisburg.
The proposed systemwide cuts, unlike the proposal to scrap a single line, allowed them to mobilize forces across the metro region, says longtime mass-transit activist Marc Stier. He says SEPTA got the message he and others sent: “You can’t do this pick-and-choose, ‘We’re going to close this line; we’re going to close that line,’ because then we have to fight you. You have to threaten across-the-board cuts, because then we’re all fighting together.”
It was a chaotic year in Harrisburg. Rural conservatives fought proposals to increase motor-vehicle fees and demanded highway funding for their districts. Meanwhile, Gov. Ed Rendell continued to transfer state and federal highway dollars to transit to stave off doomsday. Yet Republicans dithered. And so on Feb. 28, 2005, Rendell (a governor whose legislative genius sparked both admiration and condemnation) solved the problem on his own, using $412 million of a new batch of federal highways dollars to cover transit statewide for two years.
Republicans, of course, were infuriated. And it was a solution that guaranteed future problems. So two years later, Rendell struck upon a popular solution: Act 44. At the time, things seemed bright.
“With ridership up, a new general manager, and a new predictable stream of state subsidies,” the Inquirer reported in May 2008, “SEPTA breezed through its budget season with unfamiliar calm.”
After tolling I-80 fell through in 2010, Rendell, his second and final term drawing to a close, scrambled. The legislature, he said, needed to show “political courage” and pass increases in vehicle fees and the gas tax, and a gross-profits tax on oil companies. He called for a special legislative session and even proposed privatizing the turnpike to fund transportation, an idea that managed to prompt opposition across the political spectrum.
Republicans, looking ahead to the midterm elections, balked. Now, with the entire state government under his party’s control, Corbett has done the same. Harrisburg, which used to work dirty, simply no longer works.
The important Wayne Avenue Substation in Germantown is deemed “beyond its useful life,” and requires $25 million in repairs. SEPTA has access to just $12.8 million.
One of the things that makes SEPTA so much more interesting than Washington, D.C.’s efficient but staid Metro, chock full of business-suited bureaucrats and lawyers, is the theater: commuters packing West Philadelphia street corners every weekday morning looking for the trolley like spectators at an imminent parade; shell games on the El that might cost you $40 or “that pretty necklace”; men selling “incense, black soap, shea butter, incense, black soap, shea butter”; an old white lady making smiley faces at a Latina woman’s extraordinarily cute baby.
But all of those scenes are a long way from where much of SEPTA’s fate is determined, in the Harrisburg political theater that frequently spills out into the Capitol Rotunda, where protests and press conferences are organized for and against gun control, school vouchers and abortion rights.
It was there, on April 16 of this year, that Rep. Rick Geist (R-Blair) stood before reporters at a press conference calling for transportation funding. The longtime House Transportation Committee chairman was a critical supporter of infrastructure spending, and people on both sides of the aisle were looking to him to help solve the crisis. “We have terrible transportation problems,” said Geist, flanked by labor and business leaders. He warned that Pennsylvania could suffer a disaster like the one in Minneapolis in 2007, when a bridge known to be structurally deficient collapsed into the Mississippi River during rush hour, killing 13 and injuring 145.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party, however, had other priorities. One week later, Geist lost his primary race to a Tea Party-backed Penn State-Altoona finance professor, talk-radio host and political newcomer named John McGinnis.
“I oppose Mr. Geist’s efforts in the past to raise gas taxes and generally oppose his desire to toll certain interstates in the commonwealth,” McGinnis tells CP. “I would concur with his efforts to sell the turnpike provided that the revenues generated were guaranteed to go to road transportation funding and not to Philly and Pittsburgh’s mass-transit systems or anything else.” McGinnis represents the brave new Pennsylvania Republican Party that Corbett now leads. Initially regarded as a business-minded moderate, the governor signed Washington power broker Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge while fighting off right-wing primary challenger Sam Rohrer in 2010.
Since then, Corbett has balked at even the most straightforward and popular revenue measures, such as imposing a severance tax on booming natural-gas companies. When he finally approved such a fee this February, it was one of the lowest in the nation, and came with stipulations to the press that it wasn’t really a tax, per se. “Raising taxes of any kind, raising fees ... he’s really reluctant to do that,” says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College.
Republican politics in Pennsylvania are no longer determined by the commonwealth’s challenges. Increasingly, state-level Republican priorities from Harrisburg to Tallahassee are dictated by national power players like Norquist and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, a controversial group that brings conservative legislators and corporations together to write and lobby for model bills.