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What amuses me most about the SEPTA situation is how liberals who typically champion workers rights, oppose them when they become an inconvenience. Of course the Transit Workers Union’s week-long strike was completely outrageous.

Union fat cats, not entirely satisfied with the significant cash bonuses and wage increases they’d already secured for rank-and-file members, held out for a forensic audit of their pension fund and measures related to future healthcare costs — it’s unclear whether they secured those benefits in the end. Negotiations became so contentious that Mayor Michael Nutter and Gov. Ed Rendell both threatened to quit the talks.

I was more than a little shocked by the union’s greed at such a difficult time for the city. Moreover, instead of trying to leech as much money out of SEPTA as possible, workers should have advocated for much-needed modernization and improvements of the system. Two tragic events last week highlight some of the problems.

On Thursday morning, a train on one of SEPTA’s Regional Rail lines, which weren’t affected by the strike, was engulfed in flames. Over 1,000 passengers on that train and another had to be evacuated. The fire started as smoke billowing out of a vent. Apparently, this is a common problem. And, really, it shouldn’t be surprise anyone: The train was manufactured in 1964.

In an unrelated incident, also on Thursday, a worker was struck and killed by a Regional Rail train. It is unclear how this accident happened, but it’s possible the worker couldn’t see or hear the train coming until it was too late.

But the poor safety record of Regional Rail, while disconcerting, is not central to this debate — it’s controlled by a different union. Philadelphia’s subway, trolley and bus services, which fall under the TWU’s control, are only in marginally better shape, and the available money should have been prioritized toward investing and improving this core infrastructure. Many subway trains, for instance, are almost 30 years old.

In addition, the city is woefully behind other cities in modernization efforts, such as the introduction of fare smart cards. The need to use tokens is a severe drag on SEPTA’s efficiency and convenience. In early October, bids were finally submitted for the creation of a smart-card system after months of delays (and years to get the process started). Better late than never. But the system is expected to cost $100 million, the kind of money SEPTA can only get from uncertain federal grants.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, federal stimulus money and a significant change in how SEPTA receives state funding has left the system flush with cash — for the time being. That was part of the impetus for the union’s request for more cash. But SEPTA’s ridership is down 5 percent this fiscal year and sales tax are projected to fall. Both are important sources of revenue, and it will decline in a few years’ time. The TWU essentially took advantage of what is essentially a temporary situation to ask for more.

For an idea of how precarious SEPTA’s financial situation can be, you need only look back to earlier this decade, when the system teetered on financial disaster. Then, massive budget shortfalls each year forced management to defer maintenance and repairs. SEPTA workers’ inflated compensation will surely make it difficult if not impossible to fund the modernizations and improvements the system needs.

It’s unfortunate that the TWU hasn’t made safety and the long-term health of SEPTA an issue. Modernizations and improvements would be a boon to workers and passengers alike. Union bosses should look to their peers elsewhere in the country for good examples of leadership. The United Auto Workers have been willing to accept cuts so that American car companies would have a chance to survive and possibly succeed. We could have used that sense of cooperation here in Philadelphia.

David Lei is a Wharton senior from Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the former executive editor of the DP and the current executive director of the College Republicans. His e-mail address is

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