Short of funding, SEPTA unveils doomsday plan

A Media/Elwyn Line train, one of those that would be eliminated under SEPTA's draconian plan.
A Media/Elwyn Line train, one of those that would be eliminated under SEPTA's draconian plan. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 14, 2013

SEPTA has drafted a doomsday plan to eliminate nine of its 13 rail lines and shorten two others, close a subway line, and convert trolley routes to bus lines if the state doesn't come up with more money for public transit this year.

SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey sent the plan to state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch on Tuesday and laid it out for the state Senate Transportation Committee Thursday.

The "service realignment plan" would begin next year and continue slashing service until 2023, when the SEPTA system would be a shadow of its current self.

SEPTA estimates the plan would cost it at least 40 million passengers a year, about 12 percent of its ridership.

Currently, SEPTA is enjoying its highest ridership in a quarter-century and its highest Regional Rail ridership ever.

The dire SEPTA plan was made public as the legislature prepares to return to Harrisburg after its summer recess, with transportation funding high on the agenda.

Faced with Gov. Corbett's proposal for $1.8 billion in additional funding, a $2.5 billion bill approved by the state Senate, or a $2 billion plan offered by House Republican leaders, state lawmakers recessed on July 1 without approving any of them.

Amid wrangling over how much to provide for public transit, how much to increase gas taxes and motorist fees, and linking transportation to efforts to privatize the state liquor business, lawmakers could not come to agreement.

Now, "it's time to pay the piper," Casey said Thursday before testifying to the Senate committee.

"I'm just laying out reality," Casey said. "We can't maintain the infrastructure we have out there forever. . . . This is the consequence of years of underfunding transit."

Casey said the bill approved in June by the Senate, which would provide $510 million more for transit by the end of five years, would provide enough money for SEPTA to maintain its current system.

While that money would not fully fund SEPTA's needs, Casey said, SEPTA could borrow against the anticipated revenue to provide immediate financial relief.

In his letter to Schoch, Casey asked for $6.5 billion from the state over the next 10 years to restore much of the system to a state of good repair. Rail bridges are a particular problem; several major spans are more than a century old and will be closed to trains if not replaced soon, Casey said.

"I'm not going to operate over a bridge if there's a possibility it could collapse," Casey said.

Deteriorating railroad infrastructure, inherited by SEPTA from the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading Co., are the biggest drivers of SEPTA's maintenance funding gap. So the biggest service cuts proposed by SEPTA would fall on Regional Rail passengers.

The plan for cutbacks calls for suspending service on the lightly traveled Cynwyd rail line next year, the heavily traveled Media-Elwyn line in 2015, the Chestnut Hill West line in 2018, and the West Trenton, Airport, Warminster, Marcus Hook-Wilmington, Fox Chase, and Chestnut Hill East lines in 2023.

In addition, SEPTA says it would truncate its busiest rail line, the Paoli-Thorndale line, at Malvern in 2023, and end service to Doylestown on the Lansdale-Doylestown line in 2018.

Also, the plan calls for retiring - but not replacing - 284 rail cars, leaving the agency with just its 120 Silverliner V cars by 2023.

The doomsday plan also calls for converting trolley Routes 10 and 15, which serve West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia, to bus lines next year and doing the same in 2018 with trolley Routes 11, 13, 34 and 36.

The plan would close the lightly traveled Broad-Ridge Spur subway line in 2018 and end all express service on the Broad Street subway by 2023.

And paratransit service for the handicapped would be reduced.

Casey said the doomsday scenario was not an empty threat.

"We're not saying the sky is falling. This is real stuff," he said. "This is a rational assessment of where we are."

At the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, a spokeswoman for Schoch said Thursday, "If the scenario outlined in the letter comes into play, we'll work with SEPTA and other partners in the region to minimize the impact to the public as much as possible."

"This is yet another consequence of the lack of transportation investment and is of no surprise to the secretary," said deputy PennDot press secretary Erin Waters-Trasatt.

State Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and led Thursday's committee hearing at Temple University, said he took SEPTA's threat seriously.

"I don't think it's saber-rattling," he said. "This is a real, critical need."

Rafferty said he would negotiate with House Republicans to try to win passage of the Senate-approved $2.5 billion transportation-funding bill before the end of the year. He said he would not compromise on the total amount of aid, but was willing to discuss possible changes in fees and taxes to fund the measure.

He urged Corbett to lean on House Republicans to pass the funding bill. And Rafferty said it was "incumbent on us to get it done before the end of 2013," because 2014 is an election year, when lawmakers are especially loath to vote for tax or fee increases.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), an outspoken opponent of more funding for public transit, said SEPTA was trying to scare residents and lawmakers into providing more money, and likened it to the recent campaign by Schoch to place weight limits on 1,000 bridges.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the Corbett administration was working hand in glove with them . . . trying to scare people. With the legislature coming back, this is a good time to roll it out there, but I think it's going to backfire," he said.

"It's a very small minority of people who actually ride the buses," Metcalfe said. "It's hundreds of millions of dollars for a very small percentage of the population of our state."

He said transit should be run as private, for-profit operations. He acknowledged he did not know of any companies seeking to take over transit agencies, which were originally created to take over from bankrupt private companies.


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

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