Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
That $4.2 million is from the four suburban counties and the city combined.
There has been a lot of cheering over SEPTA's announcement of its new capital program — an ambitious plan to replace an aging fleet and transit infrastructure over the next 10 years. But excitement over the plan, which was realized largely because of a last-minute transit funding bill in Harrisburg, marginalizes the fact that SEPTA only gets a fraction of the captial funding seen by comparable transit agencies. Contrast SEPTA's $308 million capital budget, for a system that serves 339 million riders a year, to New Jersey Transit, which has a $1.2 billion a year capital program and records about 267 million passenger trips a year.
Although other coverage has noted that SEPTA has a $5 billion backlog of critical maintenance and upgrades it needs to make over the next 12 years, those unrealized projects are more than just an unimaginably high dollar figure. These are dozens of unrealized goals or broken parts of the transit system that make SEPTA riders silently wonder "Why the hell do I use mass transit?"
SEPTA is more self-aware than most people realize, as evidenced by the eight-page "Unfunded Capital Needs" section of their buget outline, enumerating the things it wants to change but can't. There is only so much that SEPTA can do in a state where a sizable chunk of the electorate views public transportation as a form of welfare, and a city and suburbs that can (or at least chooses to) only fork over $4.2 million a year, or 1.4 percent, for SEPTA's capital ambitions.
Some of the unfunded items are pretty high profile, like SEPTA's trumpeted Wawa Regional Rail extension. Imagine a public-transportation agency actually growing to accomodate the city's sprawling suburbs! SEPTA was "crazy" enough to actually propose reactivating a relatively tiny part of the hundreds of miles of defunct rail lines it controls across the region — extending the Media/Elwyn line by a few stops to Wawa, Pa. While the impact of this particular extension might be dubious, it would have been the first regional-rail expansion in decades. Under the current capital budget, there are exactly zero dollars set aside for this expansion over the next 12 years.
Then there are the poor trolleys. In the bad old days, when SEPTA largely viewed its role as managing the decline of the region's aging and "obselete" rail services, it "temporarily" closed the city's three remaining surface trolley lines: the 15, 23, and 56. After decades of promises to restore service, only the shortest of the three, the Route 15 trolley on Girard Avenue, has been reactivated. While many believe it's impractical and even undesirable to bring back the Route 23 (running from Chestnut Hill to South Philly, it was called the world's longest trolley line before it was closed in 1992) both are some of SEPTA's busiest. While the 23 runs down some tight, one-way streets, the 56 already has a dedicated lane running down the middle of Erie Avenue, a six-lane boulevard. Not that it matters, because no money is dedicated to restoring trolley service to Routes 23 and 56 over the next decade.
And the trolleys we do have? Yeah, they're probably not going anywhere for a while. Who can expect SEPTA to reactivate new trolley lines when the Kawasaki cars on the Green Line in West and Southwest Philadelphia, which probably looked like futuristic shuttlecraft when they debuted in 1981, are more antiquated than the actual shuttlecraft-that-sorta-look-like-Dodge-Caravans from Star Trek: The Next Generation. To the agency's credit, it has squeezed out $85 million over the next 12 years for replacement of the current trolleys, which were rebuilt in 2000 but are still close to the end of their recommended service life. Unfortunately, that's only 8 percent of the total cost of replacing all of the existing trolleys, so get ready for a future where you get to make snap decisions on whether you want to wait for one of a handful of new trolley cars or ride a 40-year-old Kawasaki death machine.
There's also SEPTA's most talked about project, renovating the City Hall station. Most people have probably grown accustomed to SEPTA's busiest subway station looking like the abandoned version of the building in M.C. Escher's Relativity, but the transit agency has been trying for years to overhaul what should be a centerpiece of its system. Unfortunately, that project, which is unusually expensive, in part, because of the cost of punching elevators through City Hall's substructure to make the station handicap accesible, is not even halfway funded. SEPTA currently plans to "phase in" improvements over the next 12 years and beyond, until it has the funding it needs — so get ready for a shiny new City Hall station when you are actually old/dead.
And these are just a taste of some of the tantilizingly accessible, self-contained SEPTA projects out there: There are literally billions more in far-reaching handicap-accesibility projects, fleet upgrades, and other changes that would make the SEPTA experience more efficient and more palatable for riders, but they will not get a dime over the next decade plus. But, it would be remiss not to appreciate some of the big items SEPTA will be able to tick off its list, like replacing most of the Regional Rail fleet and buying tons of new buses.
There are also lots more tiny improvements coming that are easy to miss in a multi-million dollar budget. You know how SEPTA has some cool apps that show you realtime data on buses and trains? Ever wonder why the El, subway or underground trolleys aren't on there? There's a reason.
A source at SEPTA says realtime data of their subterranean vehicles currently can't be relayed outside of the agency's command center because of proprietary deal with its software developer. This can change - for a price. SEPTA has allocated $17 million to various "customer satisfaction,"service quality and IT improvements, including this long-awaited change. However, that's only $17 million out of roughly $356 million. Oh well, I guess "we're getting there."
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