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Will Harrisburg Republicans save SEPTA and other transit agencies in time?

Transit agencies and advocates are pushing for new stable funding as a deal that provided $400 million a year expires.

Transit for All PA, a coalition of advocacy groups from across the state, rallies for a stable funding source for public transportation in Pennsylvania on the steps of the state Capitol last month.
Transit for All PA, a coalition of advocacy groups from across the state, rallies for a stable funding source for public transportation in Pennsylvania on the steps of the state Capitol last month.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

HARRISBURG — The Philadelphia lobbyists settled around a table in the Capitol office of Schuylkill County State Sen. David Argall, a cool, hushed space paneled in dark hardwood.

Their mission: help rescue SEPTA from the edge of a cliff.

“So where does the senator stand on expanding public transit funding and having a dedicated source for it?” Nat Lownes of the Philly Transit Riders Union asked the senator’s legislative director.

He was part of a crew of about a hundred advocates from across the state who rallied on the Capitol steps in 94-degree heat and deployed to meet with lawmakers and their staffs at the end of June.

Most of the legislators had fled town after passing the state budget, early, a couple of days before. The transit funding crunch was not addressed.

It’s acquired the nickname “fiscal cliff.” At the end of June 2022, public transit agencies in the state will lose a $400 million annual payment from the Pennsylvania Turnpike mandated under Act 89.

SEPTA, the sixth-largest public transit system in the country, has been talking with legislators for more than a year, virtually, and in the last two months before summer recess, in person.

“We wanted to remind them of one of the facts that I’m not proud of, which is that we have the oldest rail fleet in the entire United States that we need to replace as soon as possible,” said Leslie S. Richards, SEPTA’s general manager.

The system has a backlog of $6.4 billion in needed repairs, including replacing trains and trolleys. At current rates of funding, “that backlog will be caught up in about 20 years,” Richards said.

The turnpike contribution will drop to $50 million for the 2023 fiscal year and eventually disappear, and transit agencies also will begin receiving $400 million from the state sales and use tax on vehicle purchases — about $1.67 billion from July 2020 through May. So there’s a cushion at the bottom of the cliff.

But the need is greater in transit systems across the state. Nearly every county has some transit, even if it’s a relatively modest system of minibuses providing individual rides for disabled and older people, but the vast majority of the state cash goes to SEPTA and the Pittsburgh bus-and-subway system.

SEPTA officials asked the legislature for the authorization to issue bonds early based on the vehicle sales-tax money that will start flowing in 2023. Transit agencies can’t use turnpike money as collateral because it’s already committed to creditors.

“We were not asking our legislators for more, but to be able to raise money from what is due to us,” Richards said.

Another SEPTA ask was for the legislature to allow local governments to raise taxes or fees specifically for transit agencies.

“If we’re going to remain competitive, we have to do our own thing locally here, too,” said Fran Kelly, SEPTA’s assistant general manager of government and public affairs. “We have to have the ability to do it.”

Since Act 89 was enacted in 2013, SEPTA has been able to double its capital budget but is still behind fellow legacy transit systems in places such as Chicago and Boston that get more and steady funding from their state and local governments.

SEPTA has been losing millions as ridership plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic and is using federal relief funds — about $1.6 billion over two years — to continue operating as the region begins to recover. That money is not renewable.

When state legislators earmarked the turnpike money for transit, the decision was itself meant as a temporary measure during an earlier transit funding crisis. Before then, starting in 2007, transit competed for a share of the turnpike’s $450 million annual payment with state road, bridge, and highway projects.

SEPTA gets about $180 million a year of that transit pie, which amounts to 12% of the system’s operating budget for the current fiscal year.

Turnpike officials say the transit obligation had become a burden, helping drive the toll road’s debt to $11 billion and requiring it to raise tolls every year for the last decade to pay it back, while curtailing its own improvements.

As SEPTA and other transit systems worked the inside game over the last several months, activists from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and counties in between built a statewide coalition, Transit for All PA, to keep up public pressure on the Republican-controlled legislature. They rode to Harrisburg on buses (of course) on June 29.

They are pushing for $1.6 billion in sustainable funding for state transit agencies, a figure based on a PennDot study of public transit needs. To fund it, they offer a menu of possibilities, from more progressive “reach” goals such as a higher corporate income tax to options that are gaining traction in some areas of the country, such as mileage-based driver fees, per-ride fees on Uber and Lyft trips, and excise taxes on e-commerce deliveries.

“Usually the ones with the most at stake tend to get involved at the end, when the debate is down to a couple of less-than-ideal options,” said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit and one of the leaders of the coalition.

“We’re happy to be out in front of the conversation,” she said. “We’re pretty much helping to set the bar really high.”

There has been little apparent action in the legislature on the issue to date, except the outlines of a proposal by Republican Sen. Wayne Langerholc, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Among other things, that proposal would dedicate a “portion” of unspent federal stimulus funds sent to the state government for public transit capital projects. The transit agencies and advocates say that’s not workable because it would be a onetime patch, not a renewable source of funding.

The transit advocates, in meetings with lawmakers or staffers, made a case for transit being a good investment of public dollars because it reduces congestion, wear and tear on roads, and pollution — and more directly, creates thousands of jobs.

Lownes gave Argall’s legislative director, Joshua Paul, a fact sheet that breaks down transit ridership in his boss’ district by sex and industry, as well as the sales revenue and employment of each business in the district that could benefit from more spending, based on transit-related industrial classifications and whether a firm had previously won a SEPTA contract.

“Roads tend to emphasize throughput,” said Olivia Walling of Philadelphia, one of the lobbying team, making a case that transit isn’t just for big cities. “You want people stopping in your town and spending money.”

Paul said Argall might shy away from the price tag of Transit for All PA’s proposal but told the group he might look favorably on the proposal to allow local and county governments to raise their own money for transit.

SEPTA also has stressed an economic case, noting to lawmakers that it has spent $1.57 billion overall in 40 of the state’s 67 counties over the last several years. For instance, Jefferson County trolley maker Brookville Equipment Co. already sells parts to SEPTA and does rehab work on old trolleys. It could stand to gain much more as the transit system plans to spend $1.8 billion to modernize its trolley network, Richards said.

“I think it’s fair to say that everybody sees [public] transportation as a good investment,” she said of talks with lawmakers. “It’s in how we pay for it that the different opinions come in.”