SEPTA protests overlook longterm budget questions

imgresThreats that the financially distressed SEPTA will halt the popular Media-Elwyn line has set off predictable protest at Swarthmore College and the surrounding towns serviced by regional rail. The Swarthmore Borough stop along the Media-Elwyn line is situated at the edge of campus and makes it easy for students, faculty, and residents to commute into Philadelphia or livelier towns like Media.

In October, Sara Morell ’15 drafted a petition objecting to the line suspension, which has, so far, received 3,400 signatures from the College and wider community. The petition supports the State Senate bill SB-1 to provide SEPTA with $400 million more per year.

While students are rightly concerned about the future of SEPTA and our easy access to Philadelphia, no one seems to be asking the obvious questions. Namely, why is SEPTA in this financial mess to begin with? And how can we ensure that such “doomsday scenarios” don’t arrive again?

As someone who relies on SEPTA to connect to Amtrak for visiting family, I’d be at a loss if the line closed. That’s why I’m committed to getting the actual facts of the matter out, lest this kind of fiscal irresponsibility occurs year after year and leaves more residents in the lurch.

So far, the narrative coming from local Democrats and Republicans alike is that SEPTA is in need of serious infrastructure repairs that won’t happen until the folks in Harrisburg increase state funding.

What hasn’t been reported is that the state already funds 47 percent of SEPTA operating expenses, totaling $582 million. What’s more, SEPTA ridership is actually the highest its been since 1989. According to SEPTA’s 2012 annual report, riders made 339.3 million trips aboard trains, buses, subways, and trolleys. Keep in mind, SEPTA isn’t cheep. A one-way trip into the city at “peak” time costs 7 dollars. So why would a business with a soaring customer base and high revenue be in such dire straights? Because Septa isn’t run like a business.

Labor and benefits account for 59% for SEPTA’s expenses, and though everyday workers are no doubt feeling the pinch, just last month, the conductors’ union successfully secured a pay increase. That boost came as a part of a 5 year contract providing an 8.5 percent pay hike from 2009 and entails another 3.5 percent increase in 2014. It’s safe to say that no private employees in a business facing the kind of long term liabilities that SEPTA has racked up would be receiving those kinds of raises.

Meanwhile, SEPTA’s two largest pension funds, SAM and City Transit, remain significantly underfunded, at 65 and 52 percent of accrued liabilities. With revenue and subsidies getting channeled into underfunded pensions, it’s no wonder that SEPTA doesn’t have the resources for much-needed repairs. And right now, any repairs are subject to the state’s “prevailing wage” law. As the Independent’s Preston Cooper noted, union contracts stipulate that all state construction projects pay workers 30-40% higher than the market rate.

In a libertarian utopia, the best option would be to privatize SEPTA through a bidding process. More realistically, Swarthmore’s residents should pressure our representatives to repeal SEPTA’s rigid wage regime and call for a renegotiation of union contracts. This isn’t a matter of the Governor’s cheapskates snubbing Philly residents. It comes down to unsustainable annual budgets for the state and unpredictable commutes for suburbanites. We should all support fiscal sanity.







  1. Are you OUT OF YOUR MIND? No public transit in the US is private. Otherwise it’s not public transit. SEPTA employees are the worst paid of any public transit agency. They operate heavy equipment and work far more than 8 hours a day. They must meet and exceed federal standards and they can’t work more than a certain amount of hours without relief time. SEPTA operates the most amount of transit modes too. It has a lot of people to pay. They all deserve 3 times more than the ungrateful idiot that wrote this article. SEPTA is a public agency serving a public need. If they didn’t have their union, they’d all get 7.00 an hour. SEPTA will not be privatized. That would be a huge blow to our region. You don’t have your facts straight.

    The authority was supposed to be supported at proper levels by the tolling of I-80, which the feds turned down. Because the Pennsy and Reading Railroads, and Conrail (all private companies) ran the system into the ground and did not maintain the system like SEPTA does, SEPTA still has backlogged projects they could get to today if given the funding. Projects that have been ignored and starved for too long and left only to get more dangerous.

    SEPTA is insanely well managed and your claims are false in the last paragraph. You just make sh*t up. If you were educated, you’d know SEPTA is an excellent steward of tax dollars being as it gets so little compared to peer agencies. They waste no money. Conductors and engineers prior to this new contract were without one since ’09. They could have struck at any moment.

    The governor and many republicans do not care about transit. It’s a fact. I’m happy he and sensible republicans like those pushing for SB1 are doing so, but the tea baggers like Daryl /Metcalfe up in harrisburg don’t care about the middle class. They care about tax breaks for corporations, big oil, guns, god, and bashing gay people. Look who they take money from for their campaigns.

    You’re not very well informed and you should be corrected before you put out inaccurate BS such as this.

    • Just because you disagree with the “ungrateful idiot that wrote this article” doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve as much money as a SEPTA worker. Also, lots of people work 8-hour plus days and still get a market wage. Why should government jobs be any different? And I don’t think you could make the argument that SEPTA employees work harder than anyone else because many jobs require long hours of physical hard labor, or just lots of brain power.

      Also, it’s great how you just had to include that cliched talk about what republicans actually care about: “tax breaks for corporations, big oil, guns, god, and bashing gay people.” As if this has any relevance to this article whatsoever.

      But to argue that point; they care about god? Wow is that so horrible?

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