Threats 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.