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SEPTA's 2019 budget funds new buses and trains but plans for drop in ridership revenue

Vehicles are the biggest budgeted single expense for SEPTA for fiscal year 2019.

Commuters load a bus for the West Chester University at the 69th Street terminal.
Commuters load a bus for the West Chester University at the 69th Street terminal.Read moreClem Murray / File Photograph

SEPTA's operating budget will stay relatively flat for the coming fiscal year, while the capital budget includes a lot of money for vehicles and additional funding for the smart fare card that continues its rollout across the region.

Both budgets were approved at SEPTA's monthly board meeting Thursday.

The largest single expenditure in the nearly $750 million capital budget went to buses, locomotives, and other vehicles. About $103 million will pay for SEPTA's purchase of 525 hybrid buses and 25 electric buses through 2021. Modernizing the bus fleet will cost about $467 million.

An additional $67 million was designated for the purchase up to 18 new Regional Rail locomotives. SEPTA has received three of those engines and is testing them, said Richard Burnfield, SEPTA's deputy general manager and treasurer. The $154.5 million SEPTA is dedicating to locomotives is expected to assist with the issues of delays on the railroad, as they will be more reliable than the locomotives now in use, officials have said. The final cost may be less than budgeted, as SEPTA has so far committed to only 15 engines.

>>READ MORE: SEPTA's working on the railroad as riders wait to see what's next 

The condition of transportation infrastructure has received attention recently, with the American Public Transportation Association saying last week the poor state of infrastructure in the country would cost $340 billion in lost business sales from 2017 to 2023. SEPTA has a $4.6 billion backlog of work needed to bring its infrastructure up to a state of good repair, transit officials have said. The capital budget included $42 million on signal, communications, and technology; $46.5 million on infrastructure renewal; and $7.6 million on track and right of way improvements. SEPTA has estimated that it could eliminate its state-of-good-repair backlog in roughly 15 years.

SEPTA Key, which came into use on city transit in 2016, is continuing its long and expensive rollout. The fare card system had $70 million allocated to it in the capital budget, bringing the total cost of the project to $297 million, more than twice as much as its original price tag. The card has yet to be introduced on Regional Rail. An early adopter program is expected to begin in late summer, Burnfield said.

About half of the capital budget is covered by state funding, 29 percent comes from federal sources, and 22 percent from SEPTA.

>>READ MORE: Here's what went into creating Philly's first new bus route in almost a decade

The $1.4 billion operating budget approved for fiscal 2019 showed the effects of SEPTA's shrinking ridership, particularly on buses. Ridership is the lowest it's been in 10 years, with about 308 million trips estimated for fiscal year 2018, and as a result SEPTA is projecting a $4.7 million decline in passenger fare revenue in the coming fiscal year. That brings SEPTA's total budgeted operating revenue to $528 million, about $2.9 million less than last year.

The vast majority of the operating budget, about $1 billion, covers wages and benefits. Labor costs increased by $1.8 million over what was budgeted for fiscal year 2018, and by $67.8 million from fiscal year 2017. A SEPTA city transit workers strike in 2015 ended with a deal that officials said at the time would increase wages by about 10.5 percent over five years.

The largest source of outside funding for SEPTA comes from Pennsylvania, which will provide more than $735 million in state funding, about $10 million more than in the previous year. Federal funding declined by $1.6 million, to $80.5 million. Local sources provide $105 million to SEPTA's operating budget.