Faring badly SEPTA wakes up to a budget nightmare, with no easy remedy.

Posted: April 03, 2003

Add SEPTA to the list of agencies left gasping for air by the combined state and federal budget squeeze.

The transit system has taken a $15 million hit to the solar plexus thanks to Gov. Rendell's state budget, passed by the legislature without a whiff of public debate. That shortfall in state and related local aid pushed an already feared operating deficit up to $55 million; the overall budget is $888 million.

Tuesday, SEPTA said it would have to cut or curtail service on rail and bus lines serving 50,000 riders daily - more than one out of eight SEPTA customers overall. Beyond the $25 million saved that way, it said it would cut other costs $15 million.

And, oh, by the way, it will raise fares for the riders who remain.

Among the Regional Rail lines to be cut were the R-8 Chestnut Hill West, the R-2 Warminster and the R-6 Cynwyd - all of which serve a fair percentage of affluent riders from some of the region's nicest neighborhoods. The C bus, with a robust 18,000 trips a day, would nearly die, forcing commuters down to the Broad Street subway.

This has led some cynics to suspect SEPTA of indulging in a timeworn, bureacratic strategy: When facing a budget cut, threaten to cut services for your most vocal, influential clientele. Let their howls make your case.

Some of that may be going on.

But, in fairness, SEPTA has long been forced to handle rising costs on thin state aid; this sudden cut from a governor it had anticipated would be a friend is a shock to the system.

What's more, among the threatened services, the R-6 Cynwyd line is a low ridership affair that few would miss. Even without the R-8, Northwest Philadephia would still be served by the R-7; of course, a wealth of rail service has long been part of what made Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy such desirable addresses.

It rankles to think a major city's airport would lack rail service, but ridership on the airport line is low and alternatives do exist. The R-2 is the hardest rail cut to justify, since it's a well-used line and the bus and rail options SEPTA officials cite are unappetizing. Elimination of the 123 bus, connecting city workers to King of Prussia jobs, would be a tragedy.

Higher fares are also a tricky solution, since they cut into ridership.

Though Rendell has dealt mass transit a particularly unkind cut, he's just following a state tradition. These fiscal problems have been building for a decade as transit usually lost out to highways in Harrisburg.

One problem is that the state Constitution restricts gas tax revenues to highways. Complicated political deals are needed to link gas tax hikes to new transit revenue - from sources that rarely are reliable. A gas tax hike is improbable now anyway, with prices at the pump at historic highs and the legislature already choking on the governor's needed school tax reform plan.

So there is no obvious, immediate medicine for SEPTA's pain. A careful airing of whether this service cut plan is the best way to balance the budget needs must begin with the first public hearing on this budget May 5.

Transit joins nursing homes, libraries, drug treatment centers and higher education among the many parties now waking up to the enormous pain of this state budget. It remains stupefying that the legislature passed this fiscal plan put forth so reluctantly by Rendell without so much as one public hearing to scope out its impact.

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