Sailing smoothly on a stable state-funding stream after years of tossing on the stormy seas of financial uncertainty, SEPTA passed a nearly $1.1 billion budget for 2009 with major upgrades for its soaring ridership.
As local gas prices rose to $4 a gallon and beyond, drivers left their guzzlers at home and logged 13.1 million more daily trips on SEPTA during the past 10 months than they had in the first 10 months of the previous fiscal year - including 9.8 million more trips on city transit and 2.8 million more on Regional Rail.
The system suffered an overload - a rush-hour nightmare of overstuffed buses passing overcrowded corners, despite the use of every viable vehicle in the fleet.
"We have such an incredible ridership boost right now, we want to be able to get everybody to their work shifts on time and get them home after late shifts by increasing frequency of service and adding new service on all divisions," Charlie Webb, SEPTA's chief officer for service planning, said yesterday.
"Fortunately, because we now have the financial stability that we haven't had since we've been in existence, we can do this," added Chief Financial Officer Richard Bernfield.
Webb announced upgrades to satisfy soaring demand:
* Route 14: Frankford Transportation Center up the Roosevelt Boulevard corridor to Neshaminy and Oxford Valley malls serves 12,000 riders a day with service every two minutes during rush hours. It's not enough.
"There's been so much growth in the job markets along the Northeast Philadelphia and Lower Bucks corridors, as well as in riders on shopping trips," Webb said, "so we're replacing 40-foot standard buses with 60-foot articulated vehicles by fall. This increases the sitting load from 40 to 60 riders, and the standing load from 60 to almost 100."
* Route 124 and 125: Center City to King of Prussia. "There's been huge employment growth as well as shopping demand," Webb said, "so we'll increase weekday and weekend service."
* Route 108: 69th Street to the airport will run every 10 minutes instead of every 12 at peak hours.
* Route 37: From the Broad Street Line in South Philadelphia to the airport and Harrah's Casino in Chester - will become a 24-hour night owl service to accommodate demand.
* Routes 93, 96, 99 (Norristown to Pottstown, Lansdale, Royersford respectively) and 105 (69th Street to Ardmore) will get extended evening service to accommodate workers and shoppers. "We will now be able to take a rider to work and bring him home at night," Webb said.
* Regional Rail from Center City: R5 (Paoli/Thorndale), R6 (Norristown) and R7 (Chestnut Hill East/Trenton) will test-market late-night service on Fridays and Saturdays in the fall.
"We received a lot of requests from passengers and from the Center City District and Avenue of the Arts folks to offer late-night service," Webb said, "because now, we can take riders into the city for restaurants and shows, but we can't bring them home."
* New buses and more of them on Route 47 between Olney and South Philly; Route 17: South Philly to Front and Market streets; Route 70: Fern Rock to Tacony and Torresdale; Route 21: 69th Street to Penn's Landing; Route 42: West Philly to Penn's Landing; Route 23: Chestnut Hill to South Philly.
SEPTA officials said that although rising diesel-fuel prices required an unexpected additional $15 million in the 2009 budget, the new total allocation of $50 million for fuel is a small portion of the $1.1 billion budget and will not require fare hikes. *