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Metro Commentary

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Posted on Thu, May. 20, 2004

SEPTA's bumpy, deficit-plagued road

SEPTA is facing a deficit of more than $70 million for the fiscal year that begins in July, and that does not include money for well-deserved raises for SEPTA workers.

New state funding for public transportation in our region remains a critical need. The relatively low level of funding Pennsylvania historically has provided for public transportation has not kept pace with inflation over the last decade.

Whether or not we take public transportation, we all depend upon it in some way. If SEPTA is forced to drastically cut back service, our roads could become horribly clogged with cars. Our hopes of spurring economic development, particularly in older, established communities, would be stymied. A healthy environment would be impossible to sustain. And low-income residents and senior citizens, as well as students, would suffer unfairly.

This year, SEPTA has dispensed with the theatrics over its budget. Last year, the agency threatened to adopt a budget that contained draconian reductions in service, including shutting down the R8 and R1 trains and the C bus in Philadelphia. SEPTA's threats led to some increased pressure on Harrisburg, but there was an unfortunate blowback.

SEPTA generated an enormous amount of anger in the city. But most of it was directed at SEPTA itself, not at the state's failure to adequately fund transportation. Some of that anger was well deserved. SEPTA has long been criticized for its inefficiencies, and some of its proposals - such as its plan to cease operating the R8 train - were justified by faulty analysis and dubious accounting. (The decision SEPTA made in November to cut off-peak service on the R8 line was based upon the same errors.)

The outpouring of anger distracted residents and some community activists from focusing attention on the immediate problem we faced last year, when Gov. Rendell proposed, and Republicans in the General Assembly adopted, a budget that reduced transit funding.

Those of us who have been lobbying in Harrisburg found that SEPTA's charade had untoward effects in the capitol. SEPTA has a terrible reputation in Harrisburg. And the prime reason is that senators, representatives and their aides most often read about SEPTA in the newspaper when we community activists are criticizing the agency.

SEPTA has come to recognize that its dysfunctional relationship with residents in our region has undermined support for public transportation. This year it has avoided scare tactics and sought help from residents, businesses and some community activists in its effort to get new funding from the state.

SEPTA could do more to repair its relationship with the communities it serves, particularly by working with activists to encourage new ridership. But right now, we have to work together to win more state support.

Legislative support for transit remains strong among those closest to the issue. Republican and Democratic leaders of the transportation committees recognize the need. Serious proposals have been floated for increasing the sales tax revenue dedicated to public transportation and for increasing the taxes on tires or rental cars. Other proposals have been put forward so that any increase in the gas tax to fund road construction or repairs would also shift funds to public transit.

To make these proposals reality, we need our legislators to work together to create bipartisan support for public transportation. We need the leaders of the General Assembly to become engaged in this issue. We need Gov. Rendell to recognize that his hopes for a New Pennsylvania will flounder without adequate public transportation.

Most of all, we need the residents of Greater Philadelphia to match SEPTA's newfound political maturity. We need to fight alongside SEPTA for new funding for public transportation. Our political representatives need to hear from us. Write, call, and e-mail them. And join transportation activists who plan to demonstrate at the State Office Building, Broad and Spring Garden Streets, at 4:30 p.m. on June 8.

Marc Stier is president of the community group West Mount Airy Neighbors and founder of the Northwest Campaign for Public Transportation.

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