If the legislative agreements hold, SEPTA and its riders can begin to breathe easier.
SEPTA would receive about $150 million more in operating funds for the new fiscal year under provisions of the transportation package being considered in the state Senate. That would be more than enough to avoid threatened fare hikes and service cuts in September.
And the proposed measure is designed to fund mass transit in a way that may reduce the need for annual brinksmanship in Harrisburg. With a new Public Transportation Trust Fund, supported by tolls from the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-80 and 4.4 percent of the revenue from state sales taxes, mass transit agencies may have the stable funding they have long sought.
"We're very pleased with the direction that things are going, and we certainly hope this will resolve our operating crisis for a few years to come," SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said yesterday.
But he noted that neither the transportation bill nor the state budget has been approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Rendell. Until that happens, things could still change.
(SEPTA will proceed with a fare hike that took effect on Monday. That provides for subway, bus and rail fares to increase by an average of 11 percent and for transfers to be eliminated.)
Nine days into the new fiscal year, the governor and legislators reached a tentative agreement Monday night on a state budget and some of Rendell's key agenda items, including transportation.
Rendell called the transportation plan "by far the most significant amount of money devoted to transportation needs . . . in the history of the commonwealth" and that it would shore up roads and transit for the next 10 to 15 years.
He said the state's new spending on highways and mass transit would average a total of $946 million a year over the next decade. Of that, 44 percent - $414 million - is earmarked for mass transit and 56 percent - $532 million - for highways and bridges, said Roy Kienitz, Rendell's deputy chief of staff.
In the current fiscal year, $300 million in additional funding is slated for mass transit and $450 million for highways and bridges. About 62 percent of the transit money typically goes to SEPTA.
Rendell said yesterday the new funding would have a "dramatic impact" on mass transit, and he said he hoped it would allow SEPTA to restore transfers that are scheduled to be eliminated on Aug. 1.
For roads and bridges, he said not every needed project would be done but many that had been taken off the drawing board would be back. "It will eat into the backlog of bridge repairs more swiftly," he said.
The state Senate is expected to vote on the transportation bill this week and return it to the House. If necessary, it would go to a conference committee to resolve differences between the versions approved by the two houses.
"There are still a lot of details that need to be worked out," said Stacey Ritter, aide to Rep. Joseph Markosek (D., Allegheny), chairman of the House transportation committee.
The amount of local funding required for mass transit is still a matter of disagreement. The House required a 20 percent match of the state's contribution, the Senate 15 percent. Currently, on average, local governments provide 13 percent of the amount the state contributes.
The Senate bill also eliminates the options for local governments to use new taxing powers to raise transit funds. The House version had provided new taxing authority to local governments.
The transportation bill now in the Senate provides for the Turnpike Commission to contribute $250 million to the new transit fund for each of the next three years, with 2.5 percent increases annually after that.
The commission will raise money by borrowing against anticipated toll increases on the Pennsylvania turnpike and new tolls on I-80. Tolls are slated to rise by 25 percent on the turnpike in 2009 and tolls are to be added to I-80 at about the same time.
Although the plan calls for tolls on I-80, federal approval will be required for that to happen.
In recent years, the federal government has loosened long-standing rules against placing tolls on facilities built with federal funds.
One federal program, the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, permits the collection of tolls on three interstates in the country. Virginia and Missouri have taken two of the slots, leaving just one for Pennsylvania or the other 47 states.
This is the program most likely to be available for tolling on I-80.
Rep. Keith McCall (D., Carbon), the sponsor of the transportation measure, said he hoped a bill could be approved by both houses by week's end.
"We've been trying to do this for three years," McCall said. "It's nice to see that the goal line is in sight."