Imagine not having SEPTA on a Sunday, or waiting even longer for the El on a weekday morning.
These are possible scenarios SEPTA is discussing as the transit agency tries to raise awareness of the difficulties it could face under a recently proposed House GOP budget. In it, several Republican lawmakers brought up a plan that would cover Pennsylvania budget shortcomings by transferring funds from a few dozen so-called Special Funds that have a surplus. SEPTA gets money from two of these funds, and says the transfers would take away from its operating budget.
What would that look like for customers?
SEPTA will look at several scenarios for reducing service on all lines. Some possibilities include having subway trains come every six minutes instead of every three, or stopping service entirely for portions of a day. It’s also possible SEPTA could choose to not run on a certain day of the week.
Fares, which already increased 7 percent this year, would go from $2 to $2.40 for rides paid with SEPTA Key, and from $2.50 to $3 for single rides at a 20 percent hike. Layoffs would also be probable, and SEPTA Deputy GM and Treasurer Rich Burnfield said 500 people throughout the company could lose their jobs.
Burnfield said the state funding goes to SEPTA through grant agreements with organizations like PennDOT, and that these agreements have already been reached and budgeted for Fiscal Year 2018, to the tune of about $500 million. That money is paid out incrementally, about $42 million a month.
So for July, August and September, Burnfield said, SEPTA received the monthly increment. Under the budget plan proposed by some of the House GOP members, Burnfield estimates the loss would be $263 million.
“That might show up in the trust fund [as surplus],” he said, “but we have a contract where they are to pay us that during the fiscal year.”
And when that number is reduced, SEPTA could start feeling the pain immediately. Burnfield said it would takes months for the organization to go through mandated protocols but that it would end up hiking fares about 20 percent and cutting service 40 percent by January.
Influential conservatives dismiss these claims.
“It should not disrupt mass transit systems in the Philadelphia area,” said Bob Dick, senior policy analyst with the conservative Commonwealth Foundation. “If that is the case it would be incumbent on [SEPTA] to show funds are committed and there’s no way they could lose these excess reserves.”
Dick compared the money to a savings account and noted that according to the Treasurer’s Office, the total in the particular funds affecting SEPTA — the Public Transportation Trust Fund and the Multimodal Transportation Fund — has been increasing since 2014.
It’s also unlikely this budget will pass. It would need to get out of the House and then the Senate and then be approved by Gov. Tom Wolf, who has spoken out against the bill already. Dick said there’s a chance the measure would pass the House, but support needs to be built in the Senate. The Senate has already passed a budget the House has yet to approve.
Marc Stier, executive director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, echoed SEPTA’s claims of the proposal’s possible effects on transit. He compared it to a husband and wife having $5,000 in the bank and the husband mentioning they could buy a $3,000 TV when the money they’ve saved has already been set aside for an upcoming trip for a wedding and a kid’s orthodontic work.
“That money isn’t sitting around,” Stier said. “It’s waiting to be spent. It’s already programmed. And for some reason [House GOP members] seem to think that just because there’s a balance they can take it for something else even though the money is planned to be used for another purpose. It seems to me that’s what they’re up to. I can’t see any explanation for this other than they’re just confused.”