SEPTA and the Philadelphia school district may seem worlds apart, and in many ways they are. But they do have one important thing in common: both depend on state aid.
On the face of it, this should not be a large problem. Schools and mass transit systems contribute to the public good in such obvious ways that convincing state officials to fund them should not be difficult. But as The Philadelphia Inquirer commented in an editorial on Sept. 4, it is not that simple.
The Inquirer said it is rather easy to end the debate about school funding. All it takes is mentioning the dollar amount spent by the Philadelphia school district: $1.6 billion. It’s is a big number to be sure, but as in so many cases context is everything. We are not talking about the national debt or the price of a stealth bomber. We are talking about the education of thousands of children.
A closer look at the figures shows that, per student, Philadelphia spends thousands less than its suburban neighbors. The suburbs spend around $13,000 per student, while Philadelphia spends about $9,000. Simply looking at an overall dollar figure means little without considering what needs this funding will be trying to meet. $4,000 could make a big difference in the education of a city student. Many city schools do not have a full-time librarian or a full-time nurse. Textbooks in Philadelphia can be a decade old, and access to computers is often limited. Money would make a difference to the 210,000 students the Philadelphia School District is trying to educate, and lack of funding will inevitably hurt them.
Another common theme in the debate over funding is the demand that the agency in question cut out waste, fraud and abuse. In reality, it is reasonable of the people in Harrisburg to ask that state-funded organizations try tightening their belt before receiving government aid. Paul Vallas, CEO of the School District of Philadelphia has done this, saving millions of dollars. It’s not a bad idea to cut the fat, but the government needs to be sure they are not cutting muscle as well.
So what does this have to do with SEPTA? Simple. SEPTA’s budget is once again short, this time by some $72 million. SEPTA claims they have made all the cuts they can, and there is only one way to make up the deficit without service cuts and fare hikes. Harrisburg has to come through with some money, or SEPTA will shut down on weekends.
Once again, SEPTA must go begging to the state for help in order to pay its bills. Ed Rendell said through a spokesman he will try to find more funding for SEPTA, but he does not believe service cuts are necessary. I suppose SEPTA needs to find more fat in the budget, even as they operate trains older than most Temple students.
Like public education, mass transit brings with it benefits that cannot be measured on a balance sheet. These benefits include keeping cars off the streets. If people cannot get where they want to go by train, trolley or bus, they will have to drive. Their cars will use gas, congest streets and contribute to parking hassles.
This is a debate with a potentially powerful impact on Temple University. Stand on Berks Street one morning, and watch the students come down the stairs from the regional rail station. Then do the same at the Cecil B. Moore subway stop. Now try to imagine just 5 percent of those students driving around campus, looking for a parking space. Even if you do not use SEPTA, mass transit impacts your life at Temple and supporting its funding helps us all.
William Lodge can be reached at Wlt1959@aol.com.