It’s a strange sight, an empty SEPTA bus.
Something about the vacant seats and eerie silence feels, well, off. But peer through its windows, and the reality draining SEPTA of about $1 million a day is indefinitely on display.
While pandemic-related budget woes have spurred other transit agencies to sound alarms, SEPTA has stayed relatively mute on potential cost-saving steps that would undoubtedly impact Philadelphia’s most vulnerable communities.
But make no mistake, SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards said in an hour-long interview regarding what’s on the line for SEPTA and its riders. Without additional federal relief to stem losses from the pandemic as well as long-term funding solutions to ensure SEPTA’s longevity, extreme measures, including service cuts, layoffs, and fare increases, are on the table.
SEPTA anticipates an operating revenue shortfall of about $350 million by the end of its fiscal year in June.
“I cannot state clearly enough that every option will be considered,” Richards said. “That is both on the cuts side, as well as on how we need to make changes. We simply cannot afford to approach it in any other way.”
Ridership on SEPTA buses, trolleys, Market-Frankford, Broad Street, and Norristown High Speed Lines was down about 70% from pre-pandemic levels in October. Regional Rail is much worse off — running with about 85% fewer riders than usual, with little expectation of figures rebounding any time soon.
White-collar workers will continue to log into virtual meetings in button-ups and sweatpants, and further restrictions as COVID-19 cases surge will keep many indoors. The growing preference for private cars, and the false security they bring, will stave off appetites for public transportation for who knows how long.
The authority has spent nearly $150 million of the $644 million it received from the federal CARES Act passed in March “primarily on [its] labor expenses,” said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s treasurer and deputy general manager.
Richards joined the chorus of transit experts earlier this year calling for at least $32 billion in additional federal relief funding — “a bridge” to get “to the other side of this pandemic,” said Paul P. Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.
Without it, more than six in 10 public transit agencies will have to cut service or furlough workers, according to the association.
“If you look at the worst outcomes, I think for some, it could mean dramatic reductions in service,” Skoutelas said. “For some, it may even mean, unless there is additional forthcoming resources, they may even have to shut down.”
Thousands of layoffs and service cuts — maybe as much as 50% — could come for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority next year. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority last week released proposed service changes and a nearly eight-minute video from its general manager on “cost controlling measures.” Bay Area Rapid Transit’s board recently approved a cost-cutting plan.
In testimony to lawmakers in August, Richards outlined a bleak future for SEPTA if Harrisburg doesn’t boost its funding. Maps shared with officials showing possible Regional Rail cuts can’t be found on SEPTA’s website.
The authority’s “Move Better Together” COVID-19 recovery plan, a handy go-to guide outlining SEPTA’s response to the coronavirus, makes no mention of possible cuts. Asked why SEPTA wasn’t specific on what’s at stake, Richards said it’s because the authority can’t say for sure — “our entire transit picture is still up in the air.” Asked whether riders have an understanding of its financial crisis, Richards said she’s “not sure.”
No SEPTA employees have been laid off as a result of the pandemic, according to the authority, though some temporary and contracted employees have been let go. Overtime benefits, eliminated in the spring, are now awarded “in some areas” while a 10% pay cut to SEPTA executives has been reversed, Richards said. SEPTA’s Cynwyd and Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail Lines remain suspended, while others continue to run on reduced schedules.
“We know that if there is not a funding relief or solution coming our way, our only choices will be to make cuts,” Richards said, who also said relief funds would be a “Band-Aid” as it faces deep-rooted funding issues.
Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, believes a federal COVID-19 rescue bill that accounts for transit will come. When, is anyone’s guess, with difficult decisions to be made in the interim.
“Waiting is the same as not getting it,” Osborne said.
SEPTA “needs to step up and inform their riders” of whatever may come, said Yasha Zarrinkelk, who heads Transit Forward Philadelphia, an advocacy coalition.
“You’re looking at essential workers losing access to jobs,” he said. “You’re looking at Black and brown residents losing access to essential services like health care, education, and just ways for them to be able to kind of escape out of poverty.”
‘Hit in all directions’
There are deep implications for whatever transit agencies decide, and public engagement will be critical.
“Once cuts are made, it is not a matter of just snapping back to normal as soon as you put your budget back together again,” said Ben Fried, spokesperson for TransitCenter, a New York City-based foundation that supports improving public transit.
Burnfield pointed to other agencies’ fiscal calendars as a reason that they may be able to say more at this time. The closer they are to presenting budgets, the more precise they can be with planning. SEPTA will share its capital and operating budgets for the upcoming fiscal year later next year.
“I don’t know how to describe it. It’s not a double whammy, but it’s like, we are in this situation where our funding in Pennsylvania is also in the balance,” Richards said. “It’s an awful situation to be in. So that’s why we can’t separate so much the pandemic vs. the long-term funding solutions because we’re being hit in all directions at the same time.”
Since the passage of Act 89 in 2013, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has been obligated to send $450 million a year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to help support public transit. Of that, SEPTA sees about $178 million annually.
Fewer drivers during the pandemic plummeted turnpike revenues, causing the commission to delay payments, and thus, SEPTA to slow some projects while it balanced both immediate and long-term uncertainty. The turnpike’s obligation drops to $50 million in 2022.
Turnpike commissioners recently approved a bond issue of up to $550 million that will cover its two deferred payments and secure funding through the early part of next year. While SEPTA is “grateful,” Richards said, “that does not solve [its] long-term issues.”
TransitCenter has tried to anticipate possible COVID-19 fallout on SEPTA and other agencies. A 40% service cut would mean nearly 400,000 people would lose access to frequent transit where they live, according to a recent study distributed by TransitCenter and Transit Forward Philadelphia in September.
“SEPTA itself needs to be sounding that alarm,” Zarrinkelk said. “And it needs to be coming from the management team over at SEPTA ... so that riders are aware of what is coming, and that it’s not a surprise. It should never, ever be a surprise.”