New Taxes Eyed to Fund Mass Transit in Pennsylvania

Member Group : Center Square

(The Center Square) – Mass transit in Pennsylvania nears a financial crossroads in the coming year, and either way, residents will pay the price.

After federal pandemic aid ends in 2024, SEPTA – one of the nation’s largest public transportation systems that serves Philadelphia and its nearby suburbs – will face a $240 million deficit, leaving no option but to raise fares and cut services.

“We are doing absolutely everything we can to grow revenue through ridership growth and tighten our belts through efficiencies, but those measures alone are not enough,” SEPTA General Manager and CEO Leslie Richards said. “This will be the last budget proposal without service cuts and fare increases unless SEPTA receives additional support from our funding partners.”

Pittsburgh, too, lost 34% of bus riders and 52% of light-rail commuters. The steep decline came just as a 13% pay raise for workers went into effect, further exacerbating climbing operating costs that outpace transit systems in New York City, San Francisco, and Oakland.

State Rep. Ben Waxman, D-Philadelphia, sees an alternative path that could ween SEPTA and other systems off the $1.5 billion pandemic aid – giving certain counties flexibility to use other tax revenue to cover mass transit costs.

House Bill 902, introduced last week, proposes doing just that. The legislation would allow Allegheny County to levy new taxes – on liquor sales, property transfers, local income taxes, car rentals and vehicle ownership – to support the region’s transit system.

Philadelphia suburbs – Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties – could divert existing tax revenues and impose a $5 fee on vehicle registrations to support SEPTA.

A third provision offers counties similar flexibility, but no authority to impose new taxes.

“Our local leaders deserve the flexibility needed to help fund their critical local public transit systems to better serve their constituents,” Waxman wrote in a legislative sponsorship memo circulated in March. “Local governments are limited in their ability to raise revenues to fund public transit systems. This leads to missed opportunities to secure state and federal funding, and it limits how bold public transit agencies can be in delivering reliable and accessible service.”

New local fees aren’t unheard of, either. In Seattle, one-time impact fees have been levied on new construction to fund transportation and other projects.

Staff Reporter

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.