Even as the city begins to emerge from our COVID-19 shutdown, there are some things that haven’t yet returned to normal. Take SEPTA, for example. The region’s transit agency is still losing $1 million a day due to decreased ridership, yet because of unpredictable ridership patterns, still suffers from overcrowded buses and trains, where social distancing is impossible.
Of course, this is felt most keenly in the city, where a third of Philadelphia households don’t own a car and rely on SEPTA, including many of the city’s essential workers.
That’s why it was disappointing — though not surprising — to see SEPTA’s board choose to spend $40 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on the King of Prussia rail line, an exciting but expensive $2 billion suburban project with limited potential ridership.
The lack of surprise comes from the fact that SEPTA’s board has historically been composed of very few people who actually live in Philadelphia and even fewer who rely on buses, subways, and trolleys to get around. A 2020 survey of board members by Billy Penn found that just one member commutes to work every day on the transit system.
The pandemic hit SEPTA at an especially vulnerable time. The agency needs to modernize its trolley fleet, build level boarding at its Regional Rail stations, and reorganize its bus network. Additionally, the city’s Market-Frankford Line, which typically serves 190,000 riders per weekday, will soon need new cars, and the Broad Street Line, which serves 140,000 per weekday, has long been in need of more accessible stations. All of this, despite having no commitment for funding from Harrisburg beyond next year.
SEPTA gets less support from state and local governments than similar-sized agencies around the nation, such as Boston’s MBTA or San Francisco’s BART. Whatever funding is negotiated in Harrisburg when Act 89 expires, it’s not likely to be enough to cover the costs of finishing KOP rail and all the other needs of the system.
SEPTA leaders insist that KOP rail isn’t in competition with other priorities. While this may be true when it comes to federal funds — where KOP rail will be competing with projects from other cities, rather than the region — it’s not true when it comes to the money that flows from Harrisburg, which can be allocated at SEPTA’s discretion.
By using the $40 million toward King of Prussia rail, SEPTA has shown its hand when it comes to its priorities. With that investment already made, SEPTA has a responsibility to its hundreds of thousands of city riders to commit to prioritizing the essential maintenance projects in Philadelphia when state funding comes through.
That means if SEPTA’s Montgomery County board members truly believe in KOP rail, they should make a significant investment in transit by asking Montco politicians to fund the remaining work on KOP rail. Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest in the state, with one of the state’s highest median incomes. If a small town like Phoenixville can look for ways to pay for a $100 million-plus transit project, it seems likely Montgomery County can do the same, allowing SEPTA to focus on its own COVID-19 recovery.