Gray Turns Septa Funding Into A Federal Case

Posted: March 16, 1990

A bill introduced in Congress yesterday would force Pennsylvania to provide a permanent source of funds for mass transit under the threat of losing a big chunk of its federal highway money.

Under the bill, introduced by Rep. William H. Gray III, D-Pa., Pennsylvania's annual federal highway subsidy would be chopped by one-quarter - about $125 million - unless the state finds a way to get a secure source of money for mass transit, including chronically ailing SEPTA.

Such a cut in federal aid could threaten highway projects already in the planning stages.

"We have no choice but to turn up the heat," Gray said.

"Riders are faced with fare increases, and their lives are threatened by aging and crumbling equipment," Gray said in a press release. "The commonwealth must change its funding policies now. Philadelphia can't afford to wait any longer."

Last week, a Market-Frankford Elevated Line train of 30-year-old cars derailed in West Philadelphia, killing three persons and injuring more than 90 others.

The Gray bill, co-sponsored on a bipartisan basis by the Philadelphia congressional delegation, would give the state until July 1991 to establish a permanent funding source for mass transit before the highway funds would be


SEPTA and officials of the five counties it serves have lobbied in Harrisburg for years to get a dedicated tax base. A regional sales tax or a state gasoline tax increase are the most frequently discussed methods.

"Pennsylvania is behind the curve, and area transit riders are paying the price," said Gray, who represents Philadelphia's 2nd District and is the House majority whip.

"The state must correct the imbalance between highway and transit funding, or the federal government will," Gray said.

SEPTA is facing a $100 million deficit and needs $5 billion to fix and replace worn-out equipment, rails and bridges. Last month it proposed a 20 percent increase - from $1.25 to $1.50 - in the basic fare, which is already the highest in the nation.

Rick Wooten, SEPTA's assistant general manager for public affairs, called Gray's bill "another acknowledgment of the need to fund SEPTA sufficiently."

Reaction from the Casey administration, which could be forced to raise taxes in an election year, was predictably critical.

Vincent Carocci, Gov. Casey's press secretary, said the governor won't support a regional tax. The idea was part of Casey's 1989 tax-reform referendum, which was soundly rejected by voters.

"There's nothing to suggest the climate in Pennsylvania has changed," Carocci said. "It's within the power of the federal government to stop its retreat on aid to mass transit, and, as the governor has said repeatedly, we're doing our share."

James McCarron, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said Gray's bill was not a cure for SEPTA's financial ills.

Noting that the state has increased its aid to SEPTA by 32 percent in the past four years, McCarron said, "There is no dedicated source that would be able to do that."

The state is giving SEPTA $193 million in the current budget year, but

Casey has proposed a reduction of $25.2 million for fiscal 1991.

Gray noted that Pennsylvania is the only state with a mass transit system that is not supported by a steady source of funding.

"While SEPTA limps along on aging equipment, Chicago, for example, is planning a new downtown transit loop," Gray said. "Why the difference? One reason is that 30 percent of Chicago's transit funding comes from a dedicated tax.

"For several years, I have led a chorus of voices calling for dedicated funding," Gray added. "There is now a growing regional consensus on the issue.

"Key state legislators have embraced the policy, and the administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration - a native of our own region - has indicated his support.

He referred to Brian Clymer, former deputy director of the SEPTA board.

"Legislation has been introduced in Harrisburg," Gray said, "but the state must now complete the job."

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