At hearing, SEPTA says what it can't do

A train yard in Nicetown. Cuts in state funding have reduced SEPTA's capital budget 25 percent since 2010.
A train yard in Nicetown. Cuts in state funding have reduced SEPTA's capital budget 25 percent since 2010. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 25, 2013

More money or less service.

That was the familiar essence of SEPTA's capital-budget presentation Tuesday, as the agency noted how little $308 million will buy these days.

In two hearings at its Center City headquarters, SEPTA officials outlined what they described as a bare-bones spending plan for construction, new vehicles, and growing debt service.

Cuts in state funding have reduced SEPTA's capital budget 25 percent since 2010, and if Harrisburg doesn't come up with more money, the transit future is grim, said Catherine Popp-McDonough, SEPTA's director of capital budgets.

The shortage of money "will severely hamper SEPTA's ability to bring our system to a state of good repair" and will leave many projects unfunded for the foreseeable future, she said.

Most of the money in the $308 million capital budget is earmarked for overhauling existing vehicles ($56.5 million); buying new buses ($40 million); installing a federally required automatic train-control system ($45 million); repairing bridges, stations, and other facilities ($35.5 million); and paying principal and interest on debt ($51 million).

What it won't do is buy new rail cars, subway cars, or trolleys. About half the Regional Rail fleet is 37 to 39 years old, even with the recent purchase of 120 new Silverliner V cars.

And SEPTA won't fix the decrepit City Hall subway station, the busiest stop on the Broad Street line.

It won't extend rail lines to Wawa or King of Prussia. It won't restore rail service to Newtown or Quakertown. It won't put trolleys back on the tracks in Chestnut Hill, Germantown, or South Philadelphia.

"SEPTA is in a capital-funding crisis," Popp-McDonough told hearing officer Joseph O'Malley, who will make nonbinding recommendations on the budget proposal to the SEPTA board before it votes next month.

SEPTA officials note that other public transit agencies have considerably larger capital budgets: NJ Transit, $1.15 billion; Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, $905 million; Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, $800 million.

Gov. Corbett has proposed a plan to increase transportation funding $1.8 billion after five years. Most of that money would go to highways and bridges.

Recently, State Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery), chairman of the Transportation Committee, proposed a more ambitious funding plan that would provide $2.5 billion after five years, including $510 million for transit agencies.

Most of the public testimony at the first of two hearings Tuesday was critical of SEPTA's paltry spending but sympathetic to its funding plight.

"This budget is a disaster," said Alfred Achtert of Upper Darby. "Not only for the authority, but for the region and the commonwealth."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or

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