Just when SEPTA is ready to bring its hundred-year-old fare system into the "smart card" 21st century and rebuild its ancient bridges and stations, the Obama administration's reluctance to approve tolls on Interstate 80 threatens to freeze the five-county area's transit future.
At SEPTA's 2011 budget unveiling yesterday, board chairman Pat Deon said if U.S. Transporation Secretary Ray LaHood rejects Pennsylvania's application to make I-80 a toll road, "we will stop work on 20 capital projects totaling over $450 million."
Deon said SEPTA would create 3,600 fewer jobs every year if it loses the $110 millon annually that tolling I-80 would free up for capital projects.
"This would put us back into that spiral we were in 10, 15 years ago," Deon said, referring to a period when SEPTA delayed vital infrastructure upgrades because it was chronically starved for cash.
SEPTA said the budget includes proposed fare increases averaging 6 percent to keep up with cost-of-living increases since the last fare hike in 2007.
While the cash fare would remain $2, across-the-board increases would include:
* A 10-cent increase in tokens to $1.55.
* A 25-cent hike in transfers to $1.
* A $1.25 increase in weekly TransPasses to $22, and a $5 increase in monthly TransPasses to $83.
* An increase of between 25 and 75 cents in the cost of most Regional Rail tickets, depending on zone.
* An increase of between $2.25 and $4 for weekly TrailPasses, and an increase of between $8.50 and $16 for monthly TrailPasses, depending on zone.
Gov. Rendell, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and other stakeholders will meet with LaHood late this month to discuss the tolling of I-80.
The tolls would pay for maintaining I-80, said SEPTA General Manager Joseph Casey, freeing up $110 million in federal funds for SEPTA capital projects, including a computerized smart-card system to replace the outdated cash-fare system.
Casey said he can't award a smart-card contract if I-80 tolling doesn't happen.
"The $190 million in federal stimulus money was great for our capital projects," Casey said. "But getting $110 million every year for capital expenses is even more significant. We can't move forward without it. That's no way to run a railroad."
Casey said the $100 million renovation of City Hall station on the Broad Street subway line may be put on hold if I-80 tolling doesn't happen.
Public hearings on SEPTA's fiscal 2011 budget, which takes effect July 1, will be held in:
* Philadelphia on April 19, 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., at SEPTA headquarters on Market Street near 12th.
* Montgomery County on April 14, 2 p.m., Montgomery County Human Service Center, 1430 Dekalb Pike, Norristown.
* Chester County on April 15, 2 p.m., West Chester Borough Hall, 401 E. Gay St., West Chester.
* Delaware County on April 16, 2 p.m., Delaware County Court House, 201 W. Front St., Media.