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New local taxes eyed for mass transit financial woes

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(The Center Square) – The financial crunch facing Philadelphia public transit weighs heavily on the minds of some state lawmakers.

That’s why the House Democratic Policy Committee met Tuesday to discuss the importance of filling the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority’s $240 million budget deficit.

“Public transit is really a lifeline to my community that I represent,” Rep. Ben Waxman, D-Philadelphia, said. “It is the thing that connects us all together.”

“We need to find a new way to think about and finance our transit systems,” he added.

Though SEPTA officials have warned about “difficult decisions” for more than a year that could include service cuts and fare increases, state officials have been slow in proposing changes. Waxman introduced a bill last April that would allow local taxes to fund public transportation, but it has seen no movement.

Now, after Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal for reapportionment of the sales tax to partially fund SEPTA, his bill is getting more attention.

“Transit is completely underfunded in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania when compared to other states,” SEPTA CEO and General Manager Leslie Richards said.

Shapiro’s proposal, she noted, would be “tremendous” for the system and provide “a stable foundation” for the agency.

Ridership has fallen to 65% of what it was pre-COVID, she noted, as remote work has shifted riders from commuting for work to commuting in other hours. Still, SEPTA provides more than 700,000 trips every day in the region. Richards compared it to the national attention given to the collapse of I-95, which served 129,000 trips per day.

“We are a company like CVS or Aramark when it comes to the economy of the commonwealth,” Richards said.

If Shapiro’s proposal doesn’t pass, she noted SEPTA is considering a fare increase of up to 31% and service reductions as high as 20%.

“If we have to start dismantling or decrease our service, we will not be able to get it back in 2026,” Richards said.

The vast majority of SEPTA’s funding comes from federal and state sources, not local. Waxman’s proposed bill could change that and address some of Richards’ concerns.

“The Philadelphia region is the most underfunded transit agency in the country,” she said. Giving Philadelphia and its suburban counties the option to raise new revenues for the system is the only way to increase local match and, she said, is something local officials want to do.

Looking ahead, Richards argued more funding would bring station improvements, new subway cars and trolleys, airport trains every 15 minutes and “high-frequency service where you could show up to a station without looking at a schedule.”

Democrats were generally supportive of those ideas.

“We have underfunded and neglected this, and it’s our job to make sure that we do this and take care of moving Pennsylvania forward,” Rep. Mary Isaacson, D-Philadelphia, said.

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