Despite Governor Ed Rendell's recent move to save SEPTA from steep fare hikes and severe service reductions, officials across the state are still concerned with the agency's future.
Although Rendell announced this week that $412 million would be available to the state's mass-transit agencies over the next two years -- a move that effectively solved SEPTA's money crunch -- the cost was not merely measured in financial terms.
Perhaps the biggest impact the sudden flush of money has had is on the Democratic governor's relationship with the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Given Rendell's previous attempts to push forward a transportation tax package to pay for mass transit in the long term -- a move that many Republicans oppose -- the sudden unveiling of a previously undisclosed windfall of federal highway money has alternately baffled and angered his critics.
State Rep. Rick Geist (R-Altoona), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, accused Rendell of withholding factual information -- charges that Rendell's office has denied.
By contrast, Speaker John Perzel (R-Phila.) has seemingly thrown his tacit support behind the new proposal -- as long as it solves the problem.
The arrival of new funds will render unnecessary SEPTA's contingency plan to increase fares by 25 percent while cutting service by 20 percent.
"The governor had to act to avert devastating service cuts and unaffordable fare hikes," said Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Rendell.
But the development of long-term plans is imperative for the future of transportation.
The money "alleviates the crisis mentality for about two years," SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said, but it "does nothing to alleviate the continuing crisis in the lack of permanent, dedicated state funding."
"Permanent funding allows us to properly plan and manage our service to the public," he added.
Electrical and Systems Engineering professor Vukan Vuchic agreed.
"The crisis that has existed now will draw attention to the problem," he said. "If we ignore it again, it will be an impasse and a disaster."
For SEPTA to avoid another crisis two years from now, Vuchic said that the agency would have to reexamine its structure and operations. He suggested streamlining the regional rail system by implementing smaller crews and more frequent trains.
Vuchic also cited SEPTA's "obsolete relationship with labor and management."
That relationship "will not change unless you change the board," he said.
And the Transport Workers Union -- which represents the largest portion of SEPTA's workers -- still has concerns about its constituents.
"I do not know if those funds include some monies for the employees, and I do not know that those funds include improvements for the riders," said Bob Bedard, a union spokesman. "It's a huge amount of money, but like a lot of people say, the devil is in the details. It would be nice to see exactly what the money is for."
In an effort to protect agencies like SEPTA from recurring problems in the future, Rendell also created a nine-member Transportation Funding and Reform Commission.
The task force will "ensure that the money being spent is spent as prudently as possible," Ardo said.
To ensure that the city has greater control over SEPTA's fate, State Representative Harold James (D-Phila.) has proposed a bill to increase the number of city officials on SEPTA's board.
Despite the fact that Philadelphia residents make up 87 percent of SEPTA's ridership, according to James, the mayor has in the past been unable to exercise veto power over representatives from other counties. In giving the city more leverage through three additional appointments to the board, James hopes that Philadelphia can play a greater role in saving SEPTA.
"I'm not sure about whether it will pass," James said, "but at least it's going to raise some discussion."
Regardless of the outcome, he hopes that some measures are put into place to increase Philadelphia's influence over SEPTA's fate.
Philadelphia Mayor John Street is unsure how the bill could affect SEPTA.
"The mayor feels it's a good start," said a representative of the Mayor's Office, "but what remains to be seen is how it does affect governance."
Staff reporter Andrew Whitney contributed to this report.Comments powered by Disqus
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