Source: Metro
Date: June 25, 2007
Byline: Josh Cornfield

Reformers’ Roundtable SEPTA funding fight

  • Steven T. Wray, Economy League of Greater Philadelphia
  • Gregory Heller, urban planner
  • Marc Stier, Neighborhood Networks, transportation activist
  • Dewitt Brown,

PENNSYLVANIA. The state’s fiscal year officially begins Saturday, but some lawmakers in Harrisburg promise not to pass the state’s budget until dedicated funding is found for SEPTA and other public transportation systems.

Both houses of the General Assembly are debating whether to provide the extra money.

The fight for SEPTA and other public transportation systems comes down to a clash between urban and rural lawmakers with fares and service cuts for local commuters hanging in the balance.

Are Harrisburg lawmakers doing the right thing in threatening not to pass a state budget until dedicated funding for public transportation is found?

Steven Wray: Yes. As the state’s most important instrument for administering public policy, passing a budget without dedicated funding for public transportation would represent signing off on a policy that threatens to damage its economy, something no one would consider sound public policy.

Gregory Heller: I can’t say whether this tactic will work. However, I am encouraged that some lawmakers recognize the severity of Pennsylvania’s transit funding crisis, and are willing to take strong steps towards securing true dedicated funding for transit — like many major transit systems already have.

Marc Stier: Yes, SEPTA and the 38 transit agencies in the Commonwealth are critical to the economy of the whole state. If public transit collapses, so will state revenues. It would be irresponsible to pass a state budget without a solution for transit.

DeWitt Brown: Absolutely. Not only is it good for the environment, a good system of public transportation is crucial to the economic health of our region. If SEPTA raises its fares as planned, the fare increase will cost both the city and the greater Philadelphia region thousands of jobs.

What needs to be done to convince rural lawmakers that dedicated funding is necessary?

SW: Many rural legislators already understand that dedicated funding is necessary to fund transit. The legislature must come to terms with the severity of Pennsylvania’s statewide transportation crisis and realize that much-needed road and bridge projects will be funded only as part of a package with transit.

GH: Dispel the false arguments. Many believe SEPTA wastes money. Audits have shown otherwise. Many believe those who don’t use transit shouldn’t have to support it. Yet highways and gasoline are heavily subsidized, and transit takes thousands of cars off the road.

MS: First, they need to understand that all forms of transit, including their own roads and bridges, are heavily subsidized by taxpayers, including those of us in Philadelphia. Second, they need to recognize that the economy of the whole state will be in trouble if SEPTA is decimated.

DB: The solution is not convincing rural lawmakers. I doubt their interests will ever be aligned with cities. Further, they represent a minority who’s support is not necessary to secure funding. To the extent we do not have dedicated funding, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of urban and suburban representatives. We must force suburban and urban representatives to make public transportation a top priority. If they won’t, we need to elect new representatives.

What do you see as the biggest problem if dedicated funding isn’t found for SEPTA and other public transportation systems?

SW: The proposed service cuts of 20 percent would have the biggest impact. Transit service would be less convenient and predictable, and many workers would have a harder time finding and getting to jobs, making Philadelphia and its region a less attractive place to live and work.

GH: SEPTA has 300 million annual riders, supporting 18 percent of Philadelphia’s commuters. Many will have a harder time traveling, others will opt to drive, adding to our already congested highways. Perhaps most significant, raised fares and cut service will hurt our regional economy and competitiveness.

MS: The first to feel the pain of drastically reduced service and increased fares will be the working poor, senior citizens, and school children. Commuters will face crowded buses, trains, and highways. Soon all of us would be suffer from regional economic decline.

DB: If dedicated funding is not identified, SEPTA will continue to act on an ad-hoc basis. This type of decision making has allowed other cities to purchase Philadelphia’s public transit infrastructure and remove it from our city. For instance, if you want to catch a ride on a Philadelphia trolley, you’re better off traveling to San Francisco. Dedicated funding will allow SEPTA to implement a long-term transit plan that identifies key assets, like our trolley system, and insure such assets are not only protected, but also developed.