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SEPTA, facing ‘devastating’ financial losses from coronavirus, highlights customer service tweaks to woo back riders

While the recovery plan points to enhancements, it shares no specifics on the role that coronavirus funding challenges will play in the future.

69th Street Station in Upper Darby. SEPTA is hoping more riders return as summer turns into fall.
69th Street Station in Upper Darby. SEPTA is hoping more riders return as summer turns into fall.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

SEPTA is touting greater accommodations for bike commuters and future signage improvements as it digs for ways to win back riders while bracing for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authority broadly outlined a handful of customer service improvements in a “Move Better Together” COVID-19 “recovery plan,” a 23-page go-to guide published Tuesday on measures SEPTA has taken in response to the coronavirus and what it will do in the future. The authority unveiled the plan to entice riders who may return to the system after the Labor Day weekend, SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said.

Previously allowed only during non-peak hours, cyclists can now bring bicycles on Regional Rail, as well as the Market-Frankford, Broad Street, and Norristown High Speed Lines at all times. Better signage to navigate through SEPTA is in the works, as is a website overhaul and a way to share real-time crowding information with riders. Aside from the changes for bike riders now in effect, a specific timeline on other enhancements isn’t clear, Busch said.

“We thought it was important to have a document that summarizes some of the big things that have happened to date with COVID-19,” Busch said. “And also recognize the fact that we still have to deal with them moving forward.”

SEPTA anticipates a $400 million revenue shortfall to its operating budget — heavily reliant on fares — over the next three fiscal years, according to the plan. The authority expects ridership to stay nearly 10% below pre-pandemic levels up through at least May 2022. Ridership across the SEPTA system is currently about 35% of normal figures.

More than 150 staffers came together to form “plan-ahead” teams, taking into consideration telework policies that are expected to stick around and riders who may prefer private vehicles over public transportation, according to the plan. Teneo, a consultant firm, assisted the authority in the initiative.

“Moving Better Together” recounts steps already taken against the spread of the virus, including enhanced cleaning, requiring masks, and opening roof hatches on buses for better ventilation.

Seven SEPTA workers have died of COVID-19 complications. There have been about 340 confirmed employee coronavirus cases, and 260 affected people have returned to work as of late August.

While not in direct response to the pandemic, SEPTA’s board approved a $17 million contract this spring for automatic passenger counters that will provide a more accurate figure of riders onboard vehicles.

“We thought it was important to show everybody that while we are being challenged by COVID-19,” SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards said, “it is not a time for us to stop being innovative.”

In addition to losses in fare revenue, SEPTA faces a crisis to its capital budget, which is dependent on Pennsylvania Turnpike funds. Revenue there has also been severely impacted with fewer drivers on the road — an issue that’s now jeopardizing $250 million in SEPTA capital projects.

Long-term funding challenges forced SEPTA to unveil a bleak picture to lawmakers last month, threatening cuts to Regional Rail lines and to pull back subway and trolley services in the next decade.

The latest recovery plan shares no specifics on the role the coronavirus funding challenges will play in the future. A lack of fare revenue and boosted cleaning costs have burdened transit budgets across the country. Impacts on SEPTA’s operating budget have “been nothing short of devastating,” according to the report.

SEPTA has received $644 million in federal CARES Act funding, though Richards has joined a call for more relief dollars. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York has been vocal about what’s on the line, including layoffs, fare hikes, and service cuts.

“That’s not part of this recovery plan, but we will be discussing that in the future,” Richards said. “There are impacts. A lack of investment into the future of our system will require us to decrease the service that we provide currently.”

SEPTA’s full “Move Better Together” recovery plan can be found online.