SEPTA headquarters at 1234 Market St. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Earlier this month SEPTA announced the “pause” of the King of Prussia Rail project after being rejected for funding from the federal New Starts program. This announcement was a staggering turn of events for a project that has been one of SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richard’s top priorities for her entire tenure.

This stunning rebuke from the Federal Transit Administration should serve as a wake up call for the Philadelphia regional transit authority. 

It would be a gross oversight by SEPTA’s board to accept the excuses of management that this was an otherwise great project undermined by the stinginess of funding partners. It’s true the agency doesn’t receive enough state and local funding to meet regional demand, but this low ridership project stopped making sense billions of dollars ago.

Instead this board should investigate how the KOP Rail project’s budget doubled up not once, but twice during the planning process. Lessons need to be learned from this project, like how rerouting the line to appease NIMBYs not only dramatically increased cost and complexity, but lowered ridership potential — by purposely avoiding density and residents most likely to ride transit. Or how the inability of one the country’s largest transit agencies to do even basic engineering and planning work in-house sent tens of millions of dollars to outside consultants and contractors, including some COVID relief funding. This project had fatal cost problems YEARS before the recent bout of inflation.

With major projects like Trolley Modernization and Reimagining Regional Rail in the near future, it’s crucial for the agency to get a better hold of its capital planning. And more specifically, for the SEPTA Board to step up and perform its fiduciary oversight obligations more assertively. 

For too long — at least a decade — the board has merely served as a rubber stamp for the agenda items brought forth by SEPTA’s management and Pat Deon, SEPTA’s Republican chairman from Bucks County.

It’s time for all members of the board to step up and demand greater transparency and accountability. 

It is unacceptable for the monthly financial report of a major transit agency like SEPTA to routinely last less than half a minute. The taxpayers of Pennsylvania and the fare-paying riders of SEPTA deserve vigorous oversight to ensure our dollars are being spent effectively and efficiently.

It’s not unreasonable to expect  board members to ask detailed questions and demand informative answers from managers during their monthly meetings.  Unfortunately, that almost never happens. 

SEPTA is facing an existential crisis, and we’re not going to get out of it without an enhanced level of accountability. Board members should be demanding explanations not just for things the general manager elects to bring up, but also the multiple mishaps and scandals riders can’t help but be aware of. Where has the SEPTA Board been as the Key fare card program has taken years to roll out, even as the budget has exploded?

The status quo governance model isn’t working. Yes, SEPTA has faced some unique challenges over the last few years. But the next few years will also be challenging as the agency struggles to adjust to a post-COVID world with significantly less commuting and reduced face revenue. That means it’s all the more important to make the best use of resources. 

SEPTA management and board must engage in some deep self-reflection about what isn’t working inside the offices of 1234 Market Street, or they’ll keep making the same mistakes, over and over again.

Daniel Trubman is a transit advocate raised in Montgomery County. He currently lives in Philadelphia without a car and relies on SEPTA for traveling throughout the city and region.