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SEPTA passes a budget intended to draw back riders

The capital spending program depends on getting a stable source of funding from Harrisburg, among other factors.

Transit ridership has returned to about 40% of pre-COVID levels, and Regional Rail ridership is at about 20% of normal.
Transit ridership has returned to about 40% of pre-COVID levels, and Regional Rail ridership is at about 20% of normal.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Rail, subway, and bus service in Southeastern Pennsylvania is scheduled to increase further after more than a year of relative hibernation under a $1.5 billion budget approved Thursday by the regional transit authority’s board.

SEPTA will rely on pandemic aid it has received from Washington to offset the drop in fare revenue and to ratchet up the frequency of service by the fall to about 60% of pre-pandemic levels on Regional Rail and 96% of the normal schedule on transit: buses, subways, trolleys, and the Norristown High Speed Line.

There will be no fare increases for riders during the 12 months of the fiscal year budget, which runs from July 1 to June 30, 2022. Board members also passed a plan to spend $619 million on capital projects next year and a total of $7.4 billion through 2033.

“We have a lot to be optimistic about moving forward, thank God,” said SEPTA Chairman Pasquale “Pat” Deon, of Bucks County. “Finally. The city and the region are reopening; riders are returning to commute to work and go to restaurants.”

He noted “good news” from the nation’s capital as President Joe Biden and senators agreed Thursday on the framework of a bipartisan $973 billion infrastructure spending plan. It is smaller than Biden’s original ask and will include $49 billion for public transit projects, for which SEPTA will be able to compete with other agencies — if the proposal is enacted.

For SEPTA operations, the big question is whether riders will come back and when. Rich Burnfield, the agency’s chief financial officer, said transit ridership is now at about 40% of pre-COVID levels, and Regional Rail ridership is at about 20% of normal.

Of course, the capital budget is less certain in the later years of the plan. It will depend on how the transit agency might fare in competition for federal grants for capital projects that would flow from an infrastructure package and other programs — as well as whether the state legislature will find a new, stable source of funding for public transit systems across Pennsylvania.

Next year the transit systems will lose a yearly revenue stream of $450 million from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

SEPTA’s capital budget also includes a scenario in which it gets less than the hoped-for $7.4 billion through 2033.

Highlights include:

  1. A sharp increase in funding for the much-needed $1.85 billion project to modernize the trolley service with higher-capacity vehicles and fixed stations that would be accessible to people with disabilities. The capital plan envisions putting $30 million into the program next year to speed up progress and about $216 million through 2033.

  2. $25 million to improve infrastructure for the bus system over the next 12 years. SEPTA has launched a program to overhaul the system with an eye toward making bus service faster and more reliable.

  3. About $92 million to replace aging railcars on the Market-Frankford Line.