Self-hating Philadelphians love to complain about the city and its services. One of their favorite targets? The underrated, underfunded, enormous and, yes, aromatic Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known with strained affection as SEPTA.
Linger even a few minutes around City Hall Station and it’s not hard to find a dissatisfied customer. “The subway is loud, smelly, full of rude people,” gripes Jackie Ross, a self-employed 50-year-old from South Philadelphia who has been riding public transit in the city for more than three decades.
People smoke on platforms, leave half-eaten animal carcasses on seats and beat up drivers; in one infamous incident in 2011, two men indiscriminately strafed a bus full of people with gunfire over a verbal dispute that happened earlier on the route.
Yet on a typical day, the long-underfunded system performs a small miracle: getting thousands of people where they need to go. Last year, SEPTA’s subways, trolleys, commuter rails and buses supplied nearly 334 million rides — its highest ridership in 22 years.
However, the nation’s sixth-largest transit system is not contemplating expanding services to meet the growing demand. Instead, Republican hostility in Washington and Harrisburg is pushing SEPTA and other public-transit agencies nationwide to the brink of fiscal — and physical — ruin.
“Service adjustments, service cuts, [hiking] fares, tightening the belt in-house — we’ll have to look at all those options,” says SEPTA chief financial officer Richard Burnfield.
To avoid service cuts and ensure that ancient bridges don’t collapse, SEPTA is currently spending down its rainy-day fund. Next year, the agency projects a $38 million deficit, and predicts that will rise to an astonishing $160 million by 2018. Infrastructure, from commuter-rail bridges to the decrepit City Hall Station, is falling apart. SEPTA cannot afford to put building a world-class transit system on the agenda.
“That [deficit is] a big number,” says Burnfield. “SEPTA needs a fix.”
In Washington, the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party has placed mass transit in a tight fiscal headlock. Earlier this year, House conservatives proposed eliminating the 20 percent of federal transportation dollars dedicated to mass transit. They now insist that a new transportation-funding bill include an unrelated amendment to fast-track approval of the environmentally dangerous Keystone Pipeline and, in a symbolically rich gesture, bar the use of those federal dollars for bike lanes. Conservatives have long derided mass transit — like welfare, perceived to be the domain of poor urban black people — as a “socialistic program” imported from Europe. But recently, the hostility has gone off the rails: Tea Party activists around the country have been packing city halls to decry everything from bike lanes to high-speed trains as part of a United Nations conspiracy to create a “one-world order.”
So here we are: The last six-year bill funding highways and mass transit expired three years ago, and Congress has extended funds in small three- to six-month increments ever since. Current funding runs out on June 30.
On the state level here in Pennsylvania, the situation is no better. In April 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett convened a committee to study fixing the state transportation - funding system. Last August, the committee published its report. It proposed raising taxes paid by fuel distributors and increasing driver and vehicle fees to raise what the state has calculated to be $3.5 billion in urgently needed additional transportation spending, to climb to $7.2 billion in unfunded needs by 2020.
Yet Corbett, a governor who has acted decisively to eviscerate the state’s public schools and make deep cuts to social services for the poor, took no action. In his February budget address, he announced that he would, once again, punt on the issue of transportation funding.
Transportation, he said, “is not a budget item. It is too large for that. Transportation must be confronted as its own distinct and separate topic. This problem has grown for the past several decades, and it will not be solved overnight.”
Increasingly, it is unclear whether Corbett plans to solve it ever.
Corbett’s “ideology is: He wants less government spending,” says state Sen. Mike Stack (D-Phila.), who has called for a special legislative session to pass a transportation funding measure. “That’s an easy thing to say; it’s an extremely difficult task to perform. He now understands that his own commission says that he’s behind on [transportation infrastructure] by billions of dollars. And it’s news that his ideology doesn’t want to accept.”
Corbett, however, is not concerned with SEPTA’s plight.
“It is incumbent upon SEPTA,” PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters tells City Paper, “to meet operational and safety requirements.” It might then be incumbent upon SEPTA to self-destruct.
In Germantown, SEPTA’s Wayne Junction Substation looks like a museum of early-20th-century industrial technology. Unfortunately, the equipment, mostly dating to the 1930s, is not merely a historical artifact; it supplies power to SEPTA’s Doylestown, Warminster, West Trenton, Fox Chase, Chestnut Hill East and Norristown lines. SEPTA considers the station to be in urgent need of an overhaul, but has no funding to undertake it. An equipment failure could knock all six lines out of service and cause problems for several others. Just recently, Philly’s congressional delegation trumpeted the news that it had secured $12.8 million in federal Department of Transportation funding to update the substation — but even that windfall amounts to only half of what SEPTA says it needs.
The bridges are also crumbling. The Media-Elwyn Line’s Crum Creek Viaduct, an architectural curiosity built in 1895, is now supported by corroding steel columns and cracked welding. It’s also considered to be beyond its useful life.
In Center City, the entire subway network converges at City Hall Station. The subterranean complex connects two subway lines with SEPTA’s trolleys, but is also a cramped rabbit warren of tight, crumbling and dank corridors, inaccessible to disabled people, that has undergone no major renovation since its 1928 construction. The main access to the Broad Street Line is a couple of narrow stairwells that during rush hour feel like cattle chutes.
SEPTA’s annual capital budget, says SEPTA chief engineer Jeff Knueppel, now stands near a woefully inadequate $300 million. The lack of long-term federal and state funding makes planning for big, expensive projects impossible, so the agency prioritizes patching the system’s wounds with what little funds they have.
“We’re scrappy, we’re cheap, we’re innovative and we’re holding the system together now. But at some point, if we go with this little capital funding,” safety issues could slow train speeds and close commuter lines, he says. “What do we really need to be replacing things … and not necessarily even having much growth? It’s around $600 million.”
Transit systems statewide — and around the country — are in crisis. In 2010, nearly 80 percent of public transit systems hiked fares, cut service or considered doing so, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Meanwhile, questionable Wall Street debts continue to eat away at transit budgets. During the heady days of deregulated, pre-recession America, SEPTA — like school districts, cities and transit agencies around the country — took out interest-rate swaps on bonds to protect against high rates. But this backfired when the recession crashed interest rates, indebting taxpayers and transit riders to the same banks they had just bailed out.
SEPTA, according to a recent report from the ReFund Transit Coalition, is paying $4 million a year to Bank of America. The city of Philadelphia, which helps fund SEPTA, is paying $35 million to Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and the Bank of Canada, having already paid $34 million to terminate a set of toxic swap deals with many of the aforementioned banks and Wells Fargo in 2010. Banks continue to profit from the Fed’s low interest rates and, more opaquely, also profit from the billions of dollars in interest-rate-swap payments. The study found that in the 12 regions surveyed — including New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles — transit agencies lose more than $529 million each year to Wall Street.