SEPTA, PATCO, and New Jersey Transit say a strong working relationship has long been the norm among them. But the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a new normal in which all three mass transit agencies face public health, ridership, and revenue challenges.
With the regional economy shut down and many former commuters working from home, the three transit agencies each has lost about 90% of their riders. Ninety percent. That freefall is likely to prompt a messy scramble for survival that could test the ability to work together. SEPTA went from having a $7 million surplus in February to projecting a $150 million deficit for both the current and next fiscal year. The Trump administration’s stimulus program has provided SEPTA with $644 million; PATCO, $41 million; and NJ Transit, $1.4 billion. (The bulk of NJ Transit’s network serves North Jersey commuters.)
Transit advocates point out that the federal stimulus is a stop-gap, not a sustaining infusion. The agencies are using most of it to keep running — as well as covering unexpected costs of personal protection equipment, sanitizing vehicles, and other expenses. They should be setting aside some of those federal dollars to pay for short- or long-term planning.
When, how, and how efficiently their respective services are resumed will have an immediate impact on hundreds of thousands of passengers whose lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus. Reliable mass transit also is key to the long-term economic recovery of the city and its Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburbs.
Strengthening coordination among SEPTA, PATCO, and NJ Transit can only help as the three agencies face the challenge of rebuilding public confidence that taking a bus or train is not a threat to their health. Simple steps such as installing dispensers for hand sanitizers in stations, as PATCO is now doing, will be beneficial; SEPTA’s pre-shutdown plan to reconfigure its bus system will be crucial. And NJ Transit’s underutilized Atlantic City Line, which interfaces with PATCO and SEPTA, needs more frequent service to become practical for regular Philly-bound commuters.
Some riders are likely to continue working from home. Social distancing arrangements will limit seating capacity and could mean running more trains or buses to safely carry even a diminished ridership. This would make coordination of schedules or other cooperation among the agencies even more important than before. One thing is clear: The systems as we have known them are likely to be dramatically altered. The goal should be to make sure that the changes are the result of strategy and planning and not a collection of panicked reactions to the economic crisis.
SEPTA, PATCO, and NJ Transit do have nonvoting seats on the board of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and also participate in the commission’s Regional Technical Committee. The city of Philadelphia has good relationships with all three. But a separate, stand-alone working group of the three agencies would be a united voice for additional federal help for transit as well. When the pandemic subsides, the need for a safe and reliable mass transit will remain. Working together, SEPTA, PATCO, and NJ Transit will be better able to meet that need.