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The regional transit authority is the Philadelphia region’s poster child for decades of underinvestment in transportation infrastructure. It’s been so poor, and for so long, that its maintenance backlog is now $5 billion. And that’s just for basic repairs.
Here is what we know, courtesy of an exhaustive study by Econsult Solutions Inc. and the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, which was just released at a special briefing on Monday:
SEPTA is battling an unsustainable model. Ridership is at a 23-year high, while its current capital budget is at a 15-year low. It gets considerably less capital funding than its peers, and it shows. The 2013 capital budget of $304 million is well below Boston’s MBTA capital budget, which exceeds $800 million for the same year. In turn Boston’s backlog is $2 billion less than SEPTA’s.
Because it gets so little state and local support, SEPTA is more reliant on federal funds than any of its peer agencies. Sixty percent of its capital funds are federal; while in Boston and Chicago that share is 45 percent. Chicago uses a dedicated regional sales tax to help fund its transportation infrastructure, and in Boston the MBTA receives 20 percent of the state’s sales tax revenue.
“Regardless of how you parse the data, the level of funding is far lower than any other agency,” said Steve Wray, executive director of the Economy League, during the briefing. “It isn’t just the case of a smaller agency receiving less funding. And these funding totals include federal, state and local sources.”
Obviously, this raises big questions about where the money will come from.
And Wray, who says we need a long-term discussion about “what we have to do in terms of tax reform at the state level,” isn’t optimistic. “That’s a big argument that I’m not sure anybody’s ready for right now, considering all the arguments that are going on in Harrisburg today.”
He has a point. State Sen. John Rafferty, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, unveiled a $2.5 billion transportation bill earlier this month. But the cost would most likely be passed on to citizens in the form of increases in driver’s license and vehicle-registration fees and higher surcharges on traffic violations such as speeding.
Meanwhile, though, the needs aren’t going away. And not spending now brings higher costs later. According to Econsult president Richard Voith, current funding levels put the system on track for the maintenance backlog to grow to nearly $9 billion over 20 years.
“Transit infrastructure, just like highway infrastructure, depreciates over time,” Voith said. “It doesn’t stay the same. You need to invest and reinvest just to stay even over time.”
On the flip side, infrastructure spending can come with benefits.
SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey testified that the agency has $500 million worth of shovel ready projects ready to hit the streets if the state bill passes, and those projects would certainly mean jobs. City departments like the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities would also be hiring.
“The city would get to work on repairing, rehabilitating or replacing the one third of the city’s bridges in need of work,” said MOTU Chief of Staff Andrew Stober. The office could increase the amount of streets it paves and would work to advance the “build-out of a fiber interconnected upgraded traffic signal network so that we can better manage traffic flows.”
And then there’s the fact that, at current spending levels, Voith said “we can support a system that’s about 40 percent smaller than we currently are.”
What would a system that’s 40 percent smaller look like?
Travel costs to drivers and riders would increase by half a billion dollars annually in “lost time and reduced safety for travelers.” The city of Philadelphia’s job loss would be 60,000, the earnings loss would be $2.3 billion and the property loss $14 billion. Though Voith said those are SEPTA’s numbers and considerably conservative.
Additional costs would be needed for our highway system if our transit service degraded, “because you’d have more challenges with the highway system, more need for repairing that over the long term,” Wray said. “We need to make sure we’re making those investments in a balanced way, that starts with the state-level investment.”
Additional coverage of report:
Philadelphia Inquirer: Study says SEPTA is strapped