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SEPTA board approves fare changes; $2.2 billion for operating, capital budget

Some of the changes take effect July 1.

Buses at the SEPTA Olney Transportation Center in North Philadelphia on Thursday, March 19, 2020. SEPTA's board approved its latest fare changes Thursday, which will take effect July 1.
Buses at the SEPTA Olney Transportation Center in North Philadelphia on Thursday, March 19, 2020. SEPTA's board approved its latest fare changes Thursday, which will take effect July 1.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

SEPTA riders will notice changes next week following board approval Thursday of the authority’s latest fare plan, a $1.53 billion operating budget, and $640 million capital budget for the coming fiscal year.

The authority introduced the fare proposal in March, but not all of its elements will kick in Wednesday, the start of its 2021 fiscal year.

SEPTA has planned for a 50-cent hike to the SEPTA Key’s base fare, as well as increases to weekly and monthly passes. Fare increases are postponed until at least January to provide riders relief during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last-minute tweaks that will kick in Wednesday include free fares for children under 12 and an additional half-hour for riders to take advantage of one free transfer.

Prior to the changes, children were charged a full $2.50 cash fare and half the regular cost on Regional Rail. Additional transfers are $1 using the SEPTA Key. Advocates and officials campaigned for SEPTA to eliminate its $1 transfer fee, called “a barrier for many transit riders to affordably and efficiently use the network” in a 2018 city report.

» READ MORE: For Philly’s poor commuters, SEPTA fare ranks among most expensive in U.S. cities

New three-day passes will be rolled out in the fall as part of the changes, hoping to be an incentive for workers with flexible schedules.

SEPTA usually plans for fare increases every three years.

Board members “truly are listening to what the public had to say during the public hearing process,” said SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards. “I was thrilled that we had such a high volume of comments and feedback. It makes our work so much more informed.”

Councilmember Helen Gym joined in public comments during Thursday’s virtual meeting.

“This approval will cement SEPTA as a key partner in the citywide effort to end structural poverty,” Gym said. “Your action today will bring affordability and comfort to so many families across this city, and I believe will ultimately serve as a long-term financial investment in SEPTA’s future and the future of public transit.”

Members of 5th Square, the urbanist political action committee, applauded SEPTA for the changes but recommended it offer more than one free transfer, support a reduced fare program for low-income riders, and make Regional Rail more accessible to transit riders.

The bulk of SEPTA’s planned operating budget, covering maintenance and labor, is made up of $481 million in passenger revenue and $780 million in state subsidies. The budget has taken a heavy hit with few riders aboard to pay fares the last three months, though $644 million in federal relief aid intends to stem losses.

The authority developed its budget plan well before the pandemic changed its financial landscape. SEPTA is prepared to make adjustments during the new fiscal year.

“We know that based on the experience of the last few months that our revenue projections will have to be adjusted going forward,” said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s treasurer and deputy general manager, “realizing that those numbers were based on the ridership levels pre-COVID, so the revenue numbers for the upcoming fiscal year will no doubt be less than what we had budgeted for.”

The majority of SEPTA’s capital budget for the upcoming fiscal year consists of $349 million in state funds $219 million in federal funds.

The authority’s capital program accounts for infrastructure improvements, its SEPTA Key fare payment system, hybrid-electric bus expansion, Elwyn-to-Wawa Regional Rail service restoration, and more. Big-ticketed projects, like the King of Prussia rail extension and trolley modernization, will require more secure sources of funding before becoming a reality.

SEPTA counts on funding from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, required to send $450 million annually to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to support public transit, for more than a quarter of its annual capital budget. But the turnpike, facing its own struggles from plummeting vehicle traffic, was granted an extension on its July payment.

The status of future payments is unknown, said Tom McFadden, SEPTA’s chief financial officer.

“At this point, all we know are the facts,” he said, “and the facts are, they’re not making their July payment.”