The Future of Philly’s Public Transit System

The “service realignment plan” would begin next year and continue slashing service until 2023, when the SEPTA system would be a shadow of its current self. – (September 12, 2013)

SEPTA released last month, in what is being referred to as a “Doomsday Plan,” an effective picture of what Philadelphia’s regional public transit system would look like in ten years without a significant commitment of state dollars for public transportation. And it is scary!

Although the report claims they would only lose 12% of their ridership (read 40 million riders per year!), they would eliminate nine regional rail lines, shorten two other lines (leaving only two rail lines untouched), eliminate a subway line, and convert trolley lines (which are an important icon of several North and West Philly neighborhoods) to buses. Among the most shocking proposed eliminations is the Airport line, which transports passengers and employees alike, to and from the Philadelphia International Airport. The proposal would also cut off entire sections of the City, including most of the affluent Northwest Philadelphia area, which currently take advantage of a direct link to Center City and beyond. In many cases, the rail lines would have to be abandoned – not because of a lack of ridership – but because SEPTA can’t afford to keep up with maintenance on already structurally-deficient bridges and other infrastructure.

SEPTA is enjoying the highest ridership figures in decades – especially on the regional rail lines. So where is this doomsday scenario coming from? The State Legislature left for summer recess without passing transportation legislation leaving SEPTA with unknown future funding stability. Now that the Legislature is coming back into session, long-term, sustainable funding is needed to ensure that SEPTA can maintain its current level of service, employment, and levels of maintenance.

Without long-term funding, and with the loss of revenue from the dismantling of nine regional rail lines (a monthly Zone 2 train pass costs $135), SEPTA would have to lay off hundreds of workers. Currently, SEPTA employs a total of 9,270 people. Assuming a 12% loss in ridership results in a 12% reduction in employees, the Philadelphia region would lose more than 1,000 jobs.

Based on a quick look at SEPTA’s current service map, I’m guessing approximately ninety train stations would be abandoned after nine rail lines have been eliminated and two lines have been shortened. Historic train stations and miles and miles of rail tracks would be left unsecured and un-maintained. Not to mention, the many transit-oriented development projects and classic downtowns that would feel the tremendous physical, economic, and transportation impacts of the loss rail access.

Like millions of other residents of the Philadelphia region, I use SEPTA for my daily commuting needs, to get into Center City for weekend activities, and to get to the Philadelphia International Airport. These readily-accessible car-free connections across the region are one of the reasons that Philadelphia is so attractive to my generation. We aren’t as wealthy as previous generations and are more eager to live a more urban, less car-centric life style. SEPTA makes this lifestyle in most neighborhoods of the City feasible – and without it – Philadelphia would never be the same.

More articles on SEPTA’s funding crisis: