SEPTA is proposing to spend about $40 million in federal economic relief funds, mostly earmarked to help transit agencies operate buses and trains during the pandemic, on design and engineering work to advance the King of Prussia rail project.
Some Philadelphia transit advocates express worry that the budgetary move will make it harder to maintain levels of service needed to prevent overcrowding on city buses, potentially endangering passengers and operators.
“This money is intended to run transit through the crisis,” said Nat Lownes, of the Philly Transit Riders Union. “The maneuver is not illegal, but it looks shifty when they could be spending money on keeping more buses running.” Overcrowding is an “immediate threat,” he said.
SEPTA officials said the move would not reduce service. The agency’s board of directors is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to reallocate the money, which has been approved by the Federal Transit Administration and recommended by management.
“This reallocation of funds should have no effect on our ability to transport our riders safely,” said Richard Burnfield, deputy general manager for SEPTA. He said service levels are adjusted as ridership bounces back from the lows of last spring, and city bus routes are operating on pre-pandemic weekday schedules, with enough buses on the streets to allow passengers to maintain social distancing.
Normally, SEPTA leases track owned by Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, to operate some of its rail lines, with the money coming from the capital budget. In the CARES aid legislation, the federal government paid Amtrak $21.7 million directly toward SEPTA’s yearly lease bill, leaving it a balance of just over $39 million.
SEPTA wants to use some of its remaining CARES money for the track leases, freeing up about $40 million in its capital budget to finance the next phase of design and engineering for the King of Prussia project. That work will take two years, at which time the proposed four-mile extension of the Norristown High Speed Line will be eligible for federal construction grants.
Burnfield said the reallocation is “consistent” with the CARES law, which authorized and paid for transit agencies to lease track. SEPTA leases from Amtrak to operate its Trenton, Wilmington/Newark, and Paoli/Thorndale Regional Rail service, as well as portions of the Chestnut Hill West, Airport and Cynwyd rail lines.
“The timing just happened to line up nicely” to enable the agency to avoid a delay in progress of the King of Prussia project, Burnfield said. SEPTA also has an operating cushion of more than $250 million in unspent CARES money.
The King of Prussia extension has long been sought by SEPTA and regional planners because it would link one of the fastest-growing areas in the state with the Norristown Transportation Center and the 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby, offering connections to Center City.