SEPTA has more than $1.1 billion to spend in fiscal 2023 on fixing things, buying new transit railcars and buses, and advancing long-discussed major capital projects, such as an upgraded trolley system.
It’s the biggest capital budget in the agency’s 58-year history.
Rolled out Friday, the plan projects SEPTA will spend $11.4 billion on infrastructure through 2034, also a record, and about twice as large as the 12-year program SEPTA adopted last year.
The capital budget supports the authority’s strategic goal of transitioning from a system oriented toward moving people to and from traditional 9-to-5 jobs to one that is more “useful to more people” such as shift workers and drawing new customers who ride for household errands and leisure activities, said CEO Leslie S. Richards.
Changes in transit travel patterns already were underway before COVID-19, but the pandemic turbocharged them as many regular riders settled into working from home.
“This historic investment transforms SEPTA’s legacy system into a lifestyle network,” Richards said in an interview.
How SEPTA got more cash
These developments are mainly responsible for putting for extra capital money in SEPTA’s pockets:
The federal infrastructure act adds $100 million to the authority’s typical level of funding from Washington for fiscal year 2023, which will total $361 million. SEPTA will get the same $100 million each year through 2026 from the bipartisan legislation.
Selling bonds will generate $400 million for the 2023 capital budget, a leap in SEPTA’s borrowing ability brought about by a change that takes effect July 1, when state funding for public transit switches to the motor vehicle sales tax. The agency has the power to leverage that revenue to finance projects.
For the last nine years, the bulk of annual state aid to transit agencies has come via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But SEPTA could not borrow against that cash because the turnpike financed it by selling toll-backed bonds to investors it is obligated to pay back. “This is the first time we can leverage state funding, and it’s just a start,” said Nick Grieshaber, chief financial officer.
Spending in 2023: Trolley modernization, bridge and track improvements
$273 million to buy new transit vehicles and overhaul current ones. SEPTA has the oldest transit rail fleet in the nation, as Richards often notes when making the case in Harrisburg for more funding.
$144 million for SEPTA’s top long-term improvement priorities. Of that, $85 million would go to the trolley modernization project, said Brian McFadden, director of capital budget. Among other things, SEPTA needs to site and build a large trolley barn to store and maintain the bigger vehicles it plans to buy. “That’s something we have to invest in right away,” McFadden said.
Also part of the projects budget: $13 million to begin designing and building end-of-line bus facilities, loops for turnarounds, and buildings with restrooms for drivers and passengers as part of SEPTA’s “Bus Revolution” program to increase the frequency of bus service.
$105 million to upgrade track signals and communications across the SEPTA system and $54 million for work on bridges and tracks, for example.
What to expect from SEPTA’s 12-year capital program
Wayfinding. $40 million for clearer signs and maps, delivery of real-time information for customers in stations and at bus stops, and updated website and SEPTA app. That work is scheduled to be finished in 2026. Officials said some improvements would be rolled out in early 2023.
SEPTA plans to spend $1.15 billion over 12 years on trolley modernization. The project would replace the Reagan-era trolley cars now in use with new models that are accessible to people with disabilities and can carry more passengers. It also would build accessible boarding stations for the trolleys. About $770 million of the total would be for new trolley cars.
Spending $390 million on the project to extend the Norristown High Speed Line to bring rail service to King of Prussia. The agency would compete for federal funding for the balance of the estimated $2 billion cost.
Bus Revolution: $130 million to pay for infrastructure such as the turnaround facilities and improvements that would help buses avoid being stuck in traffic, such as “signal prioritization” that would give the bus a green light at intersections and bus-only lanes.
$800 million to acquire a new railcar fleet for the Market-Frankford Line, along with the infrastructure upgrades and signal improvements needed to support the new trains. McFadden called the heavily used MFL trains the “workhorses” of the SEPTA system.
About $1 billion to provide ADA accessibility at 21 rail transit stations and 20 Regional Rail stations over the next 12 years.
SEPTA will hold virtual public hearings on the capital budget on May 23 at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The agency’s board is scheduled to consider the plan at its monthly meeting June 23.
The 2023 fiscal year begins July 1.