SEPTA: The shotgun marriage

Columnist : Albert Paschall

by Albert Paschall,
Senior Commentator, Lincoln Institute

Legend holds that a young man wanted his lady’s hand in marriage and decided to go the traditional route and ask her father’s blessing. As is also traditional the father asked the young man about his career plans. “I have a fine job sir, I work for Philadelphia’s regional transit system SEPTA and it’s a promising career,” the lad said. “Well son what is it that you actually do?” Nervously the boy replied: “I ride the train all day, get off at every station and clean the restrooms.” Aghast the father blurted: “Son that doesn’t seem to be a job that has any future or chance of promotion.” Bravely the suitor fired back: “You are so wrong sir! In next year’s budget they’ve put in for me to get a brush.”

According to SEPTA’s management things might be just that tight at the constantly strapped primarily rail and bus agency. Each year Harrisburg hears it over and over and this month is particularly acute with SEPTA management crying that there will be a $129 million shortfall at the end of its fiscal year if the state doesn’t ante up.

With a mix of state funds supplying 43% of SEPTA’s budget to the projected tune of $413 million for fiscal year 2008 it’s a little difficult to get a lot of sympathy for the transit agency in the state capital. Last month House Republican leader Sam Smith said: “these transit agencies crying wolf about their budget woes without actually implementing any fiscally prudent decisions in the last several years is the definition of mismanagement.”

SEPTA management must have taken Representative Smith’s words to heart. They responded last week by running paid advertisements in metropolitan and suburban newspapers crying about how many local business contracts will be lost if the agency’s funding wish list isn’t fulfilled. Entitled “what does SEPTA have to do with an auto shop in your hometown?” the ads feature a photo of an earnest looking mechanic who’s business will somehow suffer if Pennsylvania’s taxpayers don’t fork over the big bucks. According to SEPTA Chester County businesses will lose $48 million; Montgomery County delis and lumber yards get cut $19 million and in Philadelphia commerce will suffer, in SEPTA’s words “the drastic effects” of $144 million in lost revenue.

Representative Smith hails from Jefferson County and he and his colleagues from places like Cambria, Potter or Wayne counties might find their constituents as askance as the young lady’s father if they go home and boast that they gave SEPTA all it wanted to save contracts in very successful suburban counties.

At a recent forum for Montgomery County members of the Pennsylvania House one bipartisan consensus on SEPTA was that the agency must look at its fares, especially daily regional train commuters. With gas over $3 a gallon, center city Philadelphia parking averaging $15 a day SEPTA’s top line monthly Cross County Rail Pass priced at $85 is a bargain. If SEPTA management is as worried about local businesses as the ads say it is, it could begin an aggressive campaign of contracting out suburban routes to private sector carriers that generally wouldn’t be bound by some of SEPTA’s stifling labor contracts.

The state’s relationship with SEPTA is a classic shotgun marriage. With nearly 300 million riders a year the agency’s failure could thrust a hundred million new car trips on already congested southeastern Pennsylvania highways. Every day thousands of entry level wage earners rely on SEPTA to travel from the city to suburban office parks, shopping centers and hotels for their jobs and would probably suffer the worst consequences of a shutdown. Someday if SEPTA follows Representative Smith’s advice and cleans up its act funding from Harrisburg might be a little easier to get. As SEPTA likes to say in its ads: “there’s too much riding on it.

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