Not in the cards

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be on a trading card just like a baseball or football player. Alas, there are no trading cards for commentators or “senior fellows” that I’ve ever seen so if I really want my own I’ll have to get a new job. Maybe I can work for SEPTA.

Seems that on the heels of a tortuous 7 day strike Philadelphia’s beleaguered and always cash strapped transit agency is spending $600,000 on an advertising campaign offering trading cards featuring full color photos of favored conductors, ticket sellers and bus drivers. The quality matches anything you ever bought with a stick of gum and they’re designed to promote what SEPTA calls: “Genuine Philly.”

There’s one thing certain about those cards. The idea is so bizarre that it’s truly genuine Philadelphia. Almost as bizarre as demanding that rank and file union members pay higher co-payments for benefits while managers weren’t going to be required to make any co-payments at all. Governor Rendell balanced that out, threw in some state money, and the strike was settled.

Formed by the General Assembly in 1964 SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) has grown into an enormous bureaucracy employing over 9,000 people with about 5,300 of them actually driving busses or operating trains and subways. It’s been difficult to figure out what the other 3,700 actually do. Hopefully SEPTA will put some of them on trading cards so that we can find out.

With nearly a billion dollar budget forecast, $600,000 is really nothing to SEPTA’s management. But riders, some of whom risked their lives during the strike walking to work on busy highways, will undoubtedly be overwhelmed with gratitude for their new trading cards. Who would care that $600,000 could have purchased 32,000 weekly transit passes to the system?

SEPTA management constantly cries for a new, dedicated state tax to keep it going. Opponents point out that historically SEPTA’s busses cost about twice as much per mile to operate than their private sector counterparts. Between labor demands and a top heavy management bureaucracy the only thing that changes are the dollars, always demanding more. Last spring Governor Rendell raided Federal highway funds to fend off its deficit. The only other response from Harrisburg was State Representative Rosita Youngblood’s insightful resolution allowing the agency to sell naming rights to its stations. Maybe it’s the way some of them smell but so far no takers.

Pittsburgh isn’t much different. Next week transit workers will vote on whether or not to strike over wages and increased health care co-payments. Once again Governor Rendell has promised to intervene. As it did in Philadelphia that intervention is likely to cost the rest of Pennsylvania. The Port Authority of Allegheny County ought to print trading cards now. Workers hoping to be featured on them might not take a walk.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, State Representative Joe Markosek is pushing the idea of a 10-county transit authority. He’s secured $500,000 in state funds to study the idea using SEPTA as a model. It’s hard to tell which is worse for taxpayers: the idea or the model?

SEPTA and the state’s other transit agencies can’t even hope that someday a new dedicated tax is in the cards as long as they are buying trading cards. There’s no question that mass transit is an integral part of economic development in the Commonwealth but bigger isn’t necessarily better and private sector operators will always provide a financially smoother ride.

Albert Paschall
Senior Fellow
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.

[email protected]