Keeping the trains running, barely

Regional transit systems need massive investment, not minimal repairs. But where will the money come from?

February 3, 2014 12:00PM ET
SEPTA buses sit idle at the the Frankford Transportation Terminal in Philadelphia.
Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

In September, the suffering of Philadelphia’s mass transit system appeared terminal. Saddled with a capital budget one-third the size of comparable agencies, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) declared defeat. Its crumbling infrastructure and Cold War–era rail fleets could no longer be operated safely. If at least $5 billion in funding was not quickly provided, the agency warned, nine of 13 regional rail routes would be closed, all trolleys — which in Philadelphia are well-integrated with the rest of the transit system — replaced with buses and one of the city’s two subway lines truncated.

In late November, after two no votes, a transportation bill scraped through the state legislature. It allows for baseline repairs and vehicle replacement, including, finally, trolleys that are accessible for handicapped riders. SEPTA pleaded for $454 million in 2014, with increases to follow. Instead, the bill will ramp up to giving the agency $345 million annually, an amount that will not be reached until 2018. The message from Harrisburg was clear: Preservation, not expansion, is the name of the game.

Philadelphia’s brush with disaster is typical of the perpetual crisis of public transit in the United States. Ridership levels spiked during and after the recession, but local and state budgets were forcibly contracted, forcing almost 80 percent of the nation’s transit systems to raise fares or cut back operations. In 2012, Boston suffered fare increases and service cuts, and ridership fell, and Pittsburgh faced a transit crisis similar to Philadelphia’s. In 2013, Detroit lost $7 million in funding for its buses.

The national government is not limited by balanced-budget provisions and could be used to counterbalance forced austerity from state and local governments. But new federal funding provisions in 2012 tend to favor road infrastructure, reifying Washington’s disinclination for transit funding. (Salon’s Alex Pareene has argued that this is the inevitable result of a government that structurally favors rural and suburban interests and a wealthy political class that does not tend to include, or acknowledge, those who depend on public transit.) According to the American Public Transportation Association, the feds provided 65.2 percent of mass transit capital budgets in 1988 (the earliest available year), compared with only 39 percent in 2005 and 44 percent in 2011. Given the federal preference for road infrastructure and the inconstant attention of state government, it is essential that local communities find new revenue sources, preferably from a source closer to home. 

Repairs, not expansion

The effects of shrinking federal funds are palpable in Philadelphia. The new infusion of state funds is unlikely to lead to SEPTA’s expansion, even though ridership has increased dramatically, Philadelphia’s population has started growing and car ownership is declining. SEPTA’s capital budget will double but will still be hundreds of millions of dollars smaller than its comparably sized counterparts (PDF) in Boston, northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

And growth is desperately needed. Huge swaths of the city are untouched by affordable rail lines, including some of the poorest neighborhoods in northern and southwestern Philadelphia. Two large job hubs are untouched by rail service of any kind, even though the Navy Yard, home to a diverse array of industries, is within easy range of one subway line’s terminus and commuters headed to the vast King of Prussia Mall by bus or car must sit in soul-crushing traffic. But these are not projects that can be tackled with the existing funding.

Despite the desperately needed new revenue from Harrisburg, SEPTA is in no position to pursue such long-term projects. “This is primarily capital funds that will allow us to rebuild the system that we have,” Joe Casey, general manager for SEPTA, said in an interview. “If an expansion isn’t (eligible for at least 50 percent federal support), I would find that difficult — to spend our slim state dollars on an expansion project.”

System expansion was never likely, given the magnitude of SEPTA’s crisis. It is home to the oldest rail fleet in the nation, with an average vehicle age of 33 years and infrastructure inherited from private transit companies that invested little in their holdings after World War II. The AEM-7 locomotives, which assist the regional rail fleet, fail at a rate of three times a month, while the trolley fleet’s reliability has declined by 50 percent in the last five years. Some of the power substations date back to the 1930s and use technology so out of date that no other transit authority still uses it. 

If adequate federal and state money is not forthcoming, another source of funding is needed. Local taxation for transit is a viable option.

There are similar state-of-good-repair backlogs in transit systems all over the country. In 2010 the Federal Transit Administration estimated a national mass transit repair deficit of almost $80 billion. Cities ranging from Atlanta to Kansas City, Mo., are focusing their scarce transit dollars on streetcar lines, which are useful for incentivizing downtown development but often seem to be too short and run too infrequently to be useful for most residents or commuters. (Easy, cheap fixes are often ignored, like ensuring that buses run more than twice an hour and making route maps legible to the uninitiated.) In California’s booming Bay Area, tech companies have decided to opt out of fighting for greater investment in public transportation and are instead ferrying (literally) their employees around in privatized mass transit that, until recently, utilized the existing network’s infrastructure without contributing to it. For those not employed by Google, the fight for public transit options continues.

A half-cent sales tax?

If adequate federal and state money is not forthcoming, another source of funding is needed. In SEPTA’s capital budget (PDF), announced before the state-provided bump, the local contribution from the five counties SEPTA serves was an achingly small 1.4 percent. But it is the local residents, both in the city and the suburbs, who have the greatest interest in the survival and expansion of their public transportation system. Local taxation for transit is a viable option, preferably in the form of small hikes in property or sales taxes approved by ballot measure to ensure public buy-in. The Center for Transportation Excellence has been tracking these campaigns since 2000, and its end-of-year newsletter reported a 13-year nationwide success rate of 71 percent. The most famous instance is Los Angeles County’s Measure R, a 2008 ballot initiative that used a half-cent sales-tax increase to raise $40 billion for specified projects, including a new subway line. To their detriment, most other Sun Belt cities have not followed L.A.’s example.

The benefits of a working and accessible mass transit system — ideally a combination of rail lines along heavily trafficked routes and frequently running buses to carry people to stations or outlying neighborhoods — are well documented. Everyone likes cleaner air, and those who do not use public transit, such as suburban dwellers who drive into the city for work, get to enjoy less heinous commutes. During a 2003 strike by mass transit workers in Los Angeles, highway delays increased by 47 percent, while a report released by the Texas Transportation Institute on traffic conditions in 2009 showed that mass transit saved U.S. drivers 785 million commuting hours. A recent study measuring economic mobility in the nation’s 100 largest commuting zones seemed to show many sprawling cities with bad transit failing their low-income residents. David Leonhardt and Paul Krugman, both of The New York Times, have argued that impoverished neighborhoods in Atlanta, where car ownership is often financially infeasible, are far more isolated from the prosperity around them than their counterparts in, say, New York City. As a result, economic mobility is far more limited in Atlanta, despite its cheaper cost of living.

In that context, of course, SEPTA’s newly won ability to make repairs and continue to serve the same routes in the Philadelphia region is significant. Although Philadelphia is one of the poorest large cities in the U.S., its metro area is the state’s most powerful economic engine, and SEPTA makes it easier for low-income residents to participate. An expanded system, perhaps covered by a dedicated local funding source like Measure R, could help further. The L.A. initiative had to be approved by the state legislature, though. Pennsylvania’s transportation bill included no such provisions, nor have local political leaders shown any interest. Given those narrow restraints, Harrisburg’s funding hike is a real victory. But much more is necessary and could be possible if local residents fight to give their region more revenue-raising power. 

Jake Blumgart is a reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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