SEPTA delay: An app for reporting aggressive panhandling is ‘in limbo’

But this time it’s not really the transit agency’s fault.

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Anna Orso / Billy Penn
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Update, 5:10 p.m.

SEPTA was all set to launch a new program allowing passengers to report security concerns, such as aggressive panhandling, via a third-party app. Then a lawsuit got in the way.

Now the transit agency is in a familiar situation: a holding pattern.

“It was kind of in limbo of when it would work out,” said SEPTA chief press officer Andrew Busch. “We definitely think we’re going to be moving ahead with something in the near future.”

The app would’ve been created through ELERTS and branded and designed specifically for SEPTA. Riders could use it to report suspicious activities, possible safety issues and aggressive panhandlers directly to police. The app allows for users to take pictures and uses GPS to track the location of incidents. Several transit agencies in big cities use ELERTS, including MBTA in Boston, MARTA in Atlanta and DART in Dallas.

The City of Philadelphia announced last week its new text-to-give service, encouraging people to donate that way rather than give money to panhandlers. But SEPTA’s app will be strictly for reporting issues.

According to notes from a recent SEPTA board meeting, the contract with the app, not to exceed $250,062, was scheduled to being July 1. Then everything changed because of an incident in San Francisco.

There, ELERTS provides service for BART. Last month, a class action suit was filed against the company and the transit agency alleging BART was collecting people’s personal information and violating privacy laws. BART countered that it did not use the app to track riders and said it only receives a user’s location when an incident is reported.

The lawsuit threw SEPTA’s plans for using ELERTS in flux. Busch said he’s not aware of when SEPTA will decide to still use ELERTS or choose a different company. The topic is up again for discussion at the June board meeting scheduled for June 22.

“We want to move forward with something like that,” Busch said. “We just had to take a step back. We thought we would be closer to launch now. We’re kind of holding.”

ELERTS did not immediately respond to an interview request. On the front page of its website, it does list SEPTA as a client.

For now, SEPTA passengers can report incidents to transit police by calling 215-580-8111. For emergency situations, they should call 911.

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