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SEPTA woes: Bus driver slaying, looming strike, $240M budget deficit

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(The Center Square) — Despite declining crime rates on Philadelphia’s public transit system, some high-profile incidents may still keep riders away.

On Thursday, SEPTA Bus Driver Bernard Gribbin was fatally shot six times in the chest and stomach while driving the Route 23 bus. Police have arrested 21-year-old Zhontay Capers, charging her with murder.

The killing goes against the trend of overall safety improvements on SEPTA as ridership numbers have yet to recover from the COVID-era drop – and a potential strike by the worker’s union looms.

“Overall, we are seeing progress in efforts to reduce criminal incidents, driven by efforts to hire new officers and adjust patrol strategies,” SEPTA Spokesman Andrew Busch said before the shooting.

Quarterly crime data showed that violent “part one” crimes like robbery and aggravated assaults were down 31% compared to last quarter, arrests were up 5%, and criminal assaults on SEPTA workers were down 62%.

Felony arrests went from 45 to 53 in the third quarter, though they were lower than 2021 and 2022 numbers. Code of conduct enforcement jumped to 29,137 instances, up from 22,000 last quarter and 20,000 in 2022.

The drop in SEPTA crime mirrors improvement citywide. Philadelphia has had 356 murders so far in 2023, a 19% drop compared to last year, and lower than 2021 and 2020 as well. According to police data, overall violent crime has fallen by almost 7%, though property crime has gone up by almost 20%, mostly due to retail theft and stolen cars (30% and 96% boosts, respectively).

Despite the improvements, safety concerns have driven union discontent with the transit agency. Last year, the Transport Workers Union 234 endorsed Democrat Jeff Brown in the mayoral primary partially due to their safety concerns, and a potential strike looms in the near future.

“TWU is driving a hard bargain on safety,” the union announced in a recent press release. “The union says the system is unsafe and every day TWU members and passengers are threatened by fare evaders and others committing theft as well as violent crimes. Homelessness, drug addiction, issues with the mentally ill and crime are hurting the transit system.”

Crime isn’t the only issue confronting SEPTA, either. Staffing issues continue to add stress, as do budget problems. In May, SEPTA CEO and General Manager Leslie Richards warned the public of “difficult decisions” as federal pandemic-era aid ends — by fiscal year 2025, the agency expects a $240 million budget deficit

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