On May 8th and 9th, SEPTA held, what it called, a hearing on its proposed $1.69-billion budget. The only news service to cover the hearing was Hall Monitor, and this Wednesday, we will broadcast Lance Haver being threatened with arrest for asking questions.
Questions such as: who represents the riders at the hearing? How much money is SEPTA hoarding in its “fare stabilization fund”? How much interest is the fund earning? And why isn’t SEPTA taking steps to avoid the pending doomsday scenario for SEPTA?
The hearing examiner hired to run the “hearing” read into the record a pre-written statement stating how important it was to hear from the Public; the Public could ask questions and make statements. She also said the Public would be limited to three minutes per person.
The proposed budget is 147 pages long and proposes to spend $1.69 billion. Unfortunately, one gets more time to dispute a traffic ticket than to question and challenge SEPTA’s operating budget.
There are many decisions hidden in the operating budget. Including the decision to horde hundreds of millions of dollars. On page 85 of the proposed budget is this:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on SEPTA’s operating budget. Since 2020, the sustained reductions in ridership and revenue have been covered by one-time non-recurring federal COVID relief funding, which will be exhausted in Spring 2024. The Service Stabilization Fund, which had a balance as of June 30, 2022, of $383 million.”
When Hall Monitor tried to get an answer to the question of how much more SEPTA is proposing to put into the fund this year, SEPTA said they could not answer. Instead, they claimed they didn’t know, had no estimate, and could not project. An appeal to the hearing examiner to force SEPTA to answer was met by the hearing examiner, saying she would take the request “under advisement.”
The money could make SEPTA safer and cleaner to bring riders back to SEPTA. But SEPTA is planning to fail, planning for ridership to never recover to pre-pandemic levels. Again, from the budget proposal:
“The Service Stabilization Fund will be insufficient to balance the magnitude of recurring structural deficits that emerge after federal COVID relief funding is exhausted. Based on current financial projections, the structural gap in the operating budget will balloon to $241 million in Fiscal Year 2025, $259 million in Fiscal Year 2026, $238 million in Fiscal Year 2027, $253 million in Fiscal Year 2028, and $267 million in Fiscal Year 2029.”
SEPTA is projecting a doomsday scenario for its 2025 Fiscal Year, calendar year 2024. Without hesitation, SEPTA says it will be forced to cut 20-30% of service and raise fares by 20-30%, leading to a fall in ridership. And SEPTA’s current budget proposal does not attempt to use its resources to avoid these devastating cuts and fare increases. Instead, SEPTA will continue to spend money on its “Bus Revolution,” which is predicated on the same level of service we have today, which SEPTA itself says isn’t an accurate projection.
In the past, when SEPTA has faced doomsday scenarios, Mayor Street and the Philadelphia AFL-CIO led a state-wide effort to win sufficient funding to stop the cuts and fare increases. Of course, it was a different Mayor; Mayor Kenney didn’t bother to send a single staffer to the hearings. SEPTA may have a plan to help organize a state-wide campaign to save public transit, but if so, it’s keeping it secret.
Instead, even the hackneyed expression, “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” isn’t sufficient. It’s more like the Titanic sees the iceberg miles ahead and keeps going, making no course correction, knowing disaster will come. If you would like to testify, urge SEPTA to spend its money to make SEPTA safer and cleaner, and fight the pending dooms day proposal, you can send an email to: [email protected]