Prevailing Wages and the SEPTA Crisis

I guess we can forget about making the trains run on time.

Philadelphia area’s mass transit system, the SEPTA, serves any Swarthmore student who wants to get off campus for an internship, have an evening out in the city, or even just get to 30th Street Station for a train ride home. The SEPTA station at the foot of our campus makes getting into Philly an easy task, though the $12 weekend roundtrip has gotten pricy.

Many students are wary of the news that our Media-Elwyn line could be one of the first to get the ax under SEPTA’s so-called “doomsday scenario.” The Delco Times reports that SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey is requesting $6.5 billion in funding from the Pennsylvania state government to conduct some legitimately needed renovations on the system. Otherwise, he says, the system will be forced to discontinue service on most of its rail lines, including the branch that serves Swarthmore’s campus.

Governor Tom Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature have proposed more reasonable figures in the ballpark of $2 billion and want local commuters to bear most of the expense. After all, since SEPTA only serves southeastern Pennsylvania (hence the “SE” in SEPTA), a significant portion of the funds should come directly from the Philly area, putting the burden of the costs on the consumers who will actually ride Septa.

What the debate has so far overlooked, though, is the impact of Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage law on the soaring costs of SEPTA maintenance and labor. Under the law, state-funded construction projects (such as the proposed SEPTA renovations) must pay their workers wages 30-40% higher than the going market rate. Look no further than this unnecessary premium for the reasons behind SEPTA’s soaring renovations bill – this, despite the fact that SEPTA’s ridership has hit an unprecedented high. Unbending unions hurt college students and anyone else hoping for an affordable ride into the city.

The obvious answer is to privatize the SEPTA system, thus freeing it from the influence of union lobbyists in Harrisburg. The Philly suburbs were built with train lines in mind, and the region would see a real economic boon if a private firms competed to keep costs down. Short of that, however, the legislature should repeal Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage law and inject some free-market wage competition into a faltering public dinosaur.

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