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SEPTA announces ambitious capital-improvement plan

With new state funding on the way from the recently signed transportation law, SEPTA has switched from doomsday threats to promises of a grand restoration.

With new state funding on the way from the recently signed transportation law, SEPTA has switched from doomsday threats to promises of a grand restoration.

SEPTA will move quickly to replace aging vehicles and infrastructure, to keep trains and trolleys running on routes that had been threatened with extinction, deputy general manager Jeffrey Knueppel told the SEPTA board Thursday.

SEPTA hopes to double its annual spending for vehicle purchases and construction projects to $600 million within five years, Knueppel said. Currently, SEPTA's capital budget is about $300 million a year; increasing contributions from the state are expected to incrementally boost that amount each year.

"This is an extremely exciting time for us," Knueppel said Thursday, calling the planned projects "transformative" for the transit agency.

SEPTA will finally be able to replace century-old rail bridges, such as the Crum Creek Viaduct on the Media-Elwyn Line, and decrepit power plants, such as the Jenkintown Substation, built in 1931. The agency also will move to replace the 43-year-old Silverliner IV railcars that make up two-thirds of its fleet.

Facing a $5 billion backlog of repairs, SEPTA officials had warned legislators that without more money, the transit agency would drastically cut service.

In September, general manager Joseph Casey outlined a doomsday plan that proposed to eliminate nine of its 13 rail lines, shorten two others, close a subway line, and convert trolley routes to bus lines.

Last month, the legislature narrowly approved a sweeping transportation-funding measure, and about 70 percent of the mass-transit funding in the package would go to SEPTA, the state's largest transit system. By 2018, that would mean a boost of about $400 million annually for SEPTA.

Construction will begin next summer on some of the most pressing projects, Knueppel said, with a phased plan to do much of the work over five to 10 years as money becomes available.

In addition to railcars, bridges, and power stations, the plans include new trolleys, new overhead power lines for trains, improvements to the Center City trolley tunnel, many miles of new track, shored-up rail beds, new communications and signal equipment, repaired maintenance facilities, more handicapped-accessible subway and elevated stations, and, eventually, rebuilt subway station and pedestrian concourses beneath City Hall.

A dozen Regional Rail stations will be rehabbed, and parking will be increased at some of the busiest stations.

But SEPTA's plans no longer call for a parking garage at the station in Jenkintown, where many local residents had opposed a proposed garage.

"These are the type of core infrastructure projects that are essential to the everyday operation of the SEPTA system," Casey said Thursday. "The new transportation-funding bill is a game-changer for SEPTA, its riders, and transportation in the region as a whole."

The SEPTA board on Thursday also approved a $1.28 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The board had passed a stopgap, six-month operating budget to keep buses, trains, and subways running after July 1, as legislative negotiations continued through the summer and fall over transportation funding.

The operating budget was set at the same level as last year and included savings on health insurance, fuel, and legal claims that erased a projected $38 million deficit for fiscal 2014.