An up-close view of SEPTA

As they travel to Jenkintown on a brand new regional rail train SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey, left, points out information about the transit company to FTA administrator Peter Rogoff, right. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
As they travel to Jenkintown on a brand new regional rail train SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey, left, points out information about the transit company to FTA administrator Peter Rogoff, right. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer) (Michael Bryant/Staff photographer)
Posted: July 11, 2011

On a hydraulic lift 12 feet above SEPTA tracks, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff pulled off a piece of a bridge in Norristown and watched it crumble in his fingers.

"This is the fastner," Rogoff said Monday, tugging on a rusted rivet. "There's nothing here."

Rogoff collected several rusted flakes the size of pie platters from the bridge girder on the Norristown High Speed Line.

He said he'd take the pieces back to Washington to buttress the Obama administration's case for more money for SEPTA and other aging transit systems.

SEPTA officials gave Rogoff and other federal officials a daylong tour of its aging and dilapidated facilities on Monday, demonstrating what SEPTA says is a $4 billion backlog of fix-up projects.

The Obama administration budget for next year proposes to give SEPTA $333 million to make some of those repairs, about triple what the agency got this year.

Rogoff visited some of SEPTA's showpieces of need: the dank subway concourse beneath City Hall, which needs $100 million to fix leaks, crumbling platforms, falling ceilings, and general deterioration; an 80-year old electrical substation in Jenkintown that provides power for four Regional Rail lines and will cost about $36 million to replace; the cramped Paoli train station that is overwhelmed with parking limitations and restricted access; the 105-year-old Norristown bridge that would cost $10 million to replace.

The FTA chief was joined for part of the tour by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), U.S. Reps. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) and Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), and Mayor Nutter.

Nutter, standing on Dilworth Plaza outside City Hall, said repairing SEPTA's facilities would provide the added dividend of creating jobs.

"We need to get people back to work, and infrastructure is the best way to do it," Nutter said. The planned rebuilding of Dilworth Plaza will include better access to the City Hall station below.

With state funding for transportation cut because of the inability to place tolls on Interstate 80, federal funds are expected to provide more than half of SEPTA's money for capital projects such as bridge repair, station replacement, and the purchase of new vehicles.

The FTA estimated last year it would take nearly $78 billion to bring the nation's transit infrastucture into a state of good repair. SEPTA's portion of that was estimated to be $4.2 billion.

SEPTA has 27 bridges in poor condition, including four on the Media-Elwyn rail line that were built before 1900. Twelve power substations built before 1934 remain in service. Miles of overhead catenary wire that provides power to Regional Rail trains date from the 1930s and fail with increasing regularity.

Rogoff said Monday he was impressed by the scope of SEPTA's transit network - and by the extent of its disrepair.

"I'm really struck by how fragile the infrastructure is that is supporting millions of passengers," Rogoff said. "We will continue to focus on state-of-good-repair issues - they've been ignored too long."

Rogoff cited the crumbling platforms at the Haverford Station on the Norristown High Speed Line.

"My father went to college there in the 1940s, and that's probably the same station he used then," he said.

SEPTA's chief engineer Jeffrey Knueppel, knocking chunks of rusted steel off the Norristown bridge, told Rogoff that crews would make temporary repairs soon to the span, but that it needed to replaced.

"We can't live with this the way it is," Knueppel said, though he said it remains safe for SEPTA trains to continue to use - for now.

Antiquated bridges and power facilites can reduce reliablity for SEPTA riders and drive them away from the system, said SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey.

Rogoff said the loss of even two or three percent of the passengers on big northeastern transit systems for regions like Philadelphia and New York would more than offset the gains in transit ridership of new systems in the western United States.

"It's easy to get elected officials to come to ribbon-cuttings for expansions and extensions, but not so much for replacing a substation that no passenger will ever see," the FTA chief said.

With much of official Washington focused on cutting spending, Rogoff acknowledged it won't be easy to get more money for transit agencies like SEPTA.

But he said the crumbling underpinnings of the transit systems "are not something the decision-makers get to see on a regular basis."

"It's my obligation to show this to the decision-makers," he said, holding up a chunk of Bridge 0.15 from Norristown.

He said he was hopeful the political stalemates in Washington wouldn't extend to transportation spending.

"Improving the reliability of transit for commuters doesn't need to be partisan," Rogoff said.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com

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