Mass transit advocates cheered last week when SEPTA announced a spending plan offering cheaper rides for many users of the system, which moves nearly half a million people daily around the Philadelphia region.
As outlined in SEPTA’s proposed $1.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2021, the changes include: holding base fares at $2.50; making first transfers free for many riders; and cutting fares for kids between 5 and 11 years old. The new fare schedule aims to boost ridership as the project to revamp the 125-route bus network and its connections with subways, trolleys, and Regional Rail lines gets rolling this year. Given the 2019 PEW study’s finding that using SEPTA is often more expensive than transit in comparable cities, especially for low-income people, the agency’s focus on equity is admirable and necessary.
SEPTA expects to make up the resulting $9 million annual revenue loss by cutting expenses elsewhere, without cutting service. But a far more significant budget concern looms: We’re less than two years away from the loss of $450 million in state funding for SEPTA that mostly comes from Pennsylvania Turnpike revenue, which is set to expire in 2022. That could put at risk SEPTA’s efforts to continue modernizing a 2,200-square-mile system that, flaws and all, is more essential to the economy of the city, the region, and the state than ever.
SEPTA derives 37% of its revenue from fares. After decades of political wrangling that pitted Philadelphia-area elected officials against the rest of Pennsylvania, state legislatures in 2007 and 2012 wisely moved to stabilize operational and capital funding — though bashing SEPTA’s need for state subsidies has long been a tradition in Harrisburg.
The 2012 legislation expires in 2022. Meaning that $450 million — an amount that’s helped double the agency’s capital budget — would have to come from the state’s general fund. This prospect is so unlikely that the transit agency and other stakeholders already are organized and lobbying to find alternatives. Among them: Fees for users of ride-sharing services like Uber, direct funding by the four suburban Pennsylvania counties served by SEPTA, congestion pricing, and other fees and taxes are under review by the group of stakeholders.
The Southeast Partnership for Mobility, a three-agency transportation collaborative group, is officially agnostic about what proposals are most feasible. But the report it released last May cites options that would generate revenue through new taxes and fees. Such legislation also would authorize Philadelphia and the four counties to issue bonds to fund SEPTA capital improvements.