The good news is that there was no SEPTA strike last week. The bad news? The South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority continues to suffer under a $70 million deficit and the agency has a June deadline to unveil its 2005 budget. With no increase in state funds in sight for the agency, SEPTA will have to make some hard reckoning – fast.
Philadelphia already has the dubious honor of charging what was the second highest cash fare in the nation when enacted in 2001. The $2 base charge for subways, buses or trolleys is surpassed only by San Diego, a city grounded in automobile culture. San Diego is a different commuting city entirely from Philadelphia, a place that traditionally has been much reliant on public transport.
But this is Philly, of course. Given the difficulty of purchasing tokens in many neighborhoods thanks to SEPTA’s byzantine sales system, where attendants at most stations do not make change, let alone sell tokens, the $2 fare is the city’s status quo.
But even high fare charges for public transit unfortunately cannot sustain the agency; yet SEPTA has shown itself to be disarmingly passive when it comes to hitting up Harrisburg for money.
Those public transit lobbyists are still around though – they’re just shilling for Korean train manufacturers instead of fighting for their agency. A recent purchase of new Regional Rail cars from the Korean United Transit company, led to accusations of favoritism and bid-rigging from other companies bidding for the contract.
But thanks to a lobbying team including state Republican Party chairman Alan Novak and Governor Ed Rendell, the purchase initially went through. But Kawasaki’s protests have led to a withdrawal of the bid, costing the cash-strapped agency even more money.
While United Transit’s lobbyists stalked Harrisburg, SEPTA’s were nowhere to be found. The transit agency has no full-time lobbyists and has a legendarily lazy reputation for fundraising from the state when budget time comes around. T
hanks to the agency’s quasi-public status, SEPTA became used to neglect from state government and a culture of debt gradually settled in. While NJ Transit, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and D.C.’s Metro are all ferocious fighters for state funds as well as local funds, SEPTA has never shown much of a will to fight for funding.
As always, Philadelphia’s citizens will be left to foot the bill for SEPTA’s debt. Come June, expectations are for the agency to introduce yet another fare hike or reductions in service similar to last year’s threat to end service on several crucial Regional Rail and bus lines. Sad as it is, for this city’s public transit, it is no real surprise.
Neal Ungerleider can be reached at N_Terminal@yahoo.com.