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DN Editorial: Sick transit

Harrisburg zealots are throwing SEPTA under the bus

THE LATEST evidence about the importance of mass transit to the region comes from a Center City District release this week that revealed that nearly 70 percent of workers who live in Center City use public transportation to get to work.

Imagine the traffic nightmare if they all decided tomorrow to drive their cars to get to their jobs. Major roads would become parking lots. And don't even talk about the Schuylkill Expressway.

It seems a self-evident truth that SEPTA, with its 337 million riders a year, is a vital part of the region's economy. No sane person would argue that mass transit is a frill.

Then there is state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe.

Metcalfe, a Republican from Butler County, is one of a cadre of conservative House members who scuttled attempts to pass a new transportation-funding bill in June, mostly because they were unhappy with the fact that the bill increased a number of taxes and fees to raise $2.5 billion needed to fund road and bridge repairs and mass-transit agencies around the state. It is money, most experts agree, that is desperately needed for the state to catch up with long-delayed work.

These Republicans are against tax increases, period - even though many of them live in rural counties where state roads and bridges are the lifeblood of towns and villages. Metcalfe's Butler County has 654 miles of state roads, compared with 361 miles in Philadelphia.

They also don't want the state in the business of supporting mass transit. As Metcalfe put it: "Your buses don't do a thing for my constituents. How about we pay for your state roads and bridges, and you pay for your own buses?"

Instead of the state helping on mass transit, Metcalfe and company want local governments to do it. One version of their transit-funding bill allowed counties to levy add-on sales, income and real-estate transfer taxes to pay for mass transit.

Because of sharp political divisions, mostly between House and Senate Republicans, the bill to raise money for transportation was one of the items left on the table when the Legislature fled Harrisburg in early July for its summer vacation.

As a result, SEPTA, unsure of how much money it will get from the state, passed a stopgap budget for six months. It also froze its capital budget, used for larger projects, at $300 million for this year. Studies have shown that SEPTA needs more than double that amount to keep up to date on repairs for its vast web of rail lines, on the Market Street el and to purchase new equipment to replace buses and trains that have simply worn out. The money isn't there, and if Metcalfe and Co. have their way, it never will be.

The impact of House inaction isn't limited to mass transit. PennDOT recently put lower weight limits on 1,000 Pennsylvania bridges considered too structurally weakened to handle heavy trucks. Eighty-six of those state-owned bridges are in the five-county area.

Our well-rested legislators return to Harrisburg on Sept. 23. They should quickly pass the $2.5 billion version of the transportation-funding bill.