SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but it’s been six and a half years since the last of former SEPTA GM Faye Moore’s “doomsday plans”, an annual exercise in political hostage-taking with the goal of obtaining more stable funding for SEPTA. The proposed cuts were severe and carefully targeted to inflame the most politically active communities, like the Airport Line (business travellers), the Chestnut Hill West Line (affluent city-dwellers in West Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill), and all weekend service (anybody who does things on weekends), while also having just as much cover as financially necessary to provide negotiating leverage. Eventually, the political brinksmanship worked, and SEPTA traded a fare hike on its riders every three years for Act 44, Ed Rendell’s deal with the Republican Legislature for the support of transit systems across all 67 counties of the Commonwealth, funded by the PA Turnpike Commission.

So when this week, Moore’s successor Joe Casey came out with his own “doomsday plan”, one that eliminated nine entire Regional Rail Lines, truncated two more, and eliminated all trolley service across city and suburb alike, and generally made Faye Moore’s threats look like a dinner party invitation, there was a strong feeling of deja vu among SEPTA watchers and veteran riders, and the reaction was muted grumbling punctuated by occasional howls of outrage. After all, with Act 44 broken by the failure to toll I-80, isn’t this just going back to the hostage-taking days of yore?

SEPTA today and projected 2023
SEPTA’s Rail network, before and after starvation

No. This plan is far, far more terrifying than any SEPTA has come up with before. Because after careful examination, I can only come to the conclusion that there was no political agenda at all in the formulation of this plan. This Doomsday Plan is a dispassionate listing of things that are going to fail that SEPTA does not have the money to replace.

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. The before and after map included above shows the end state of the SEPTA rail system after ten years at the current rate of capital investment, i.e. $300 million/year. Every peer system has a much higher level of capital funding; MBTA’s is around $800 million, NJ Transit $1.2 billion, WMATA averages $1.0 billion/year over a five-year plan, and New York MTA averages $5 billion, again over a five-year plan. Of course, none of those agencies consider themselves fully-funded for capital needs. SEPTA is declaring that the current level of investment is not enough for any major repairs or purchases, and is preparing to go into triage mode to save as much of the system as it can. Even with an unimpeachable set of priorities, the amount that can be saved under the circumstances turns out to be “not much”.

The key problems are bridges and rolling stock. Both are vital, and both are supremely expensive. While certain projects (like Wayne Junction Station, NPT rollout, or the recently-announced third track at Yardley) have been funded on a piecemeal basis by seeking out loans or grants, those are projects on the order of $107, while the various needs that will bring the system down are on the order of $108 to $109, totalling (by SEPTA’s own reckoning) $6.5 billion over the next 10 years.

Bridges first. Thanks to a mixture of bad timing and bad funding situations of the past, SEPTA has several bridges that will fail soon without major rebuilding or replacement. Some have come to the end of a long period of service, and some are reaching the end of what SEPTA’s steady diet of spot fixes and duct tape can provide. The first two lines proposed to be eliminated are victims of predicted bridge failure: the Cynwyd Line next year due to the expected failure of the flyover bridge at 52nd Street Junction, and the Media/Elwyn Line in 2015 due to the expected failure of the Crum Creek Viaduct in Swarthmore Borough. And while SEPTA has not named which bridge in particular on the NHSL west of Bryn Mawr and east of Hughes Park it is concerned about, there are several candidates, and the reported state of the Bridgeport Viaduct (metal so corroded it could be pulled away by hand) gives an idea of what to expect.

SEPTA has asserted a cost of $58.9 million to bring Crum Creek Viaduct back to a state of good repair [PDF p. 19], but it should be noted that this bridge was closed in 1982-83 (some of SEPTA’s darkest years) for band-aid repairs, much as Bridgeport Viaduct is closed today, and is now once again at the edge of failure, a service life of 32 years as opposed to its original 87. I doubt SEPTA would advertise another quick-fix strategy, but they did accept it as a compromise at Bridgeport, and might do so again if forced.

Second, and more importantly, trains and trolleys. The best tracks, signals, and ticketing systems don’t mean a damn if you don’t have any vehicles to carry your riders. By bad luck of timing, SEPTA’s 30-year-old K-car trolleys, its refurbed 1947 PCC-II trolleys, its 25-year-old push-pull fleet, and 40-year-old Silverliner IVs, are all reaching their end-of-life at around the same time; in fact, SEPTA is making the optimistic assumption that the Silverliner IVs will reach the same remarkable 49-year longevity that the recently-retired Silverliner IIs achieved. The going rate on Silverliner-style EMUs is about $3 million per railcar (MTA just signed a contract for up to 584 third rail-powered M9s for LIRR and Metro North for $1.8 billion), and the going rate of ADA-compliant LRVs is also about $3 million per (MBTA’s Type 8 trolleys for their Green Line cost $2.1 million each up front, but they were also atrocious lemons that will cost the T excess money well into the future). Assuming SEPTA only wants to replace its commuter rail and trolley fleets at one-for-one, 140 K-car trolleys + 17 PCC-II trolleys + 232 Silverliner IVs + 53 unpowered cars from the push-pull fleet, at a highly optimistic flat rate of $3,000,000 per trolley or railcar, is a total obligation of $1.326 billion. And that is before any accounting for fleet growth, which SEPTA will presumably not have another real shot at for the next 30 years, or seat parity, since newer regulatory-compliant railcars have fewer seats than existing ones. EDIT 20 September: Douglas Diehl provides SEPTA’s own numbers in the comments: $1.419 billion for the Silverliner VIs, $1.005 billion for LRVs. My lowball estimates here were way low.)

So in order to have any hope of still running trolleys or most of its trains by 2023, SEPTA needs a line on around $1.5 billion$2.4 billion, give or take. And it needs it all in one shot; per unit costs go down as the size of orders increases, and SEPTA is barely large enough to lift itself out of the category of a “boutique order”. So it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. SEPTA is now sketching out what “nothing” looks like.

“Nothing”, it turns out, involves the shutdown of all but four Regional Rail Lines, with four of the top five lines by ridership run with a skeleton fleet of 120 Silverliner Vs, the only remaining Regional Rail rolling stock. (The odd high-ridership line out is West Trenton, which retains service south of Jenkintown.) Lines with vulnerable infrastructure all get the boot, as do lines it is inefficient to serve with limited rolling stock. Paoli/Malvern survives, of course, as does Trenton; Trenton may be the most efficient line to run because of the high reverse-commuter ridership, and on both of those lines, tracks and structures are the maintenance responsibility of Amtrak, with the guarantee of continuity that implies. On the Reading side, most of the critical bridges between Lansdale and Market East were fully rebuilt only 20 years ago during Railworks, and Norristown is mostly at-grade north of Manayunk and also has strong reverse-commute ridership. Wilmington, while being an Amtrak-owned line with strong reverse-ridership, is too long to serve; a round-trip to Wilmington takes 2h10m minimum, Suburban-Suburban, in which time the equipment could have gone to Norristown, returned, and very nearly made it back to Norristown again.

In the meantime, the $300 million/year budget will be devoted to keeping the core of the system running: the Market Frankford El, the bus system, and the Broad Street Local. The M4 cars on the El are in decent shape, and the line almost 100% reconstructed, so it’s good for the next ten years, but the B-IV cars on Broad Street are 30 years old. Express and Ridge-Spur service will be suspended, not only to save money on track maintenance on the inner tracks, but to ensure plenty of spare trains are around to cannibalize for parts as the B-IVs enter senescence. Bus maintenance and purchases will take up much of the remaining funds, especially as trolley and rail lines get bustituted.

So we are left with a system a shadow of its former self, but still the largest system possible given the financial and physical constraints. The highest-ridership Regional Rail lines are held open, local service on Broad Street is maintained and not abandoned, and not a single unjustifiable cut has been made. But there is one thing that is political about this announced plan: the timing and format of the announcement. SEPTA can count just as well as anyone, and knows better than anyone that this capital funding crisis is an existential one for SEPTA as an agency. So it has packaged the steady drumbeat of impending failure into one easily comprehensible map, and has fired it as a warning salvo across the bows of its political masters in Harrisburg, slightly over a year out from a major statewide election. Governor Corbett has failed so far in literally every single one of his affirmative legislative goals, and is in dire need of an accomplishment, any accomplishment, if he is to have any hope of being competitive in his re-election campaign. The legislature, like many movement-conservative-dominated bodies, seems unable to make up its collective mind as to whether it wants to accomplish anything or not, and is much more secure than the Governor in its position thanks to rampant gerrymandering. But even the bought-and-paid-for members representing Marcellus Shale drillers are getting nastygrams over load-restricted bridges across the Commonwealth, thanks to the lack of a Transportation plan since the collapse of Act 44. So there is one thing this plan has in common with the blackmail of old: the message is targeted at 254 elected representatives in Harrisburg. And while anti-transit, anti-urban ideologues like Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) may not think that a SEPTA in crisis poses any threat, others will know better. Whether that is enough to reach 102+26+1 remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, on the assumption that any positive solution for repairing the breach left by Act 44 must be reached either before the next election, or in the next legislative session afterwards, I’ll be running a series of posts here, detailing the options for funding SEPTA’s capital needs through local means, in the quite likely event that midstate Republicans retain a majority in one or more houses of the General Assembly. None of these scenarios will be particularly likely; the most likely event is a short-term punt to increase PennDOT’s bridge repair and transit capital funding, but we should be looking to long-term solutions now, and I suppose I might as well start. Watch this space…

EDIT 20 September: Next article in series “Act 44”: Part 0: I DO NOT WANT your filthy money

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14 thoughts on “SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.”

  1. Thanks very much for all of this background and analysis, Noda, I appreciate it a lot!

    Do you have any say over the ads that run at the bottom of your posts? I viewed this post with Safari instead of my normal (adblock-enabled) Firefox, and was startled to find a video touting shale-oil drilling in North Dakota – possibly autoselected because you mention the Marcellus. (I only clicked on it because it shows up directly under your ‘Watch this space’, and I mistakenly thought it was some related video you had put there as a cap to your post).

  2. Thanks for the writeup!

    BTW, since the PA legislature, like the national legislature, has become a movement-conservative do-nothing congress, I’d submit that we’ll have to wait until after the next election to see anything done. Right now, though, we do seem to be heading into a period of extended political weakness for both the City and State…which is a major problem for its economic engine.

    1. I’m well aware that the environment is bad in the PA General Assembly. But it’s nowhere near as bad as Congress, where it’s looking like a government shutdown in two weeks may be the good outcome. All due respect to Sen. Casey’s pledge, but any assertion involving this Congress passing legislation is basically a bluff.

      Part of my optimism for the GA is that there are still Republicans who see road and bridge repair (roads only; I’m not kidding myself) as a basic government function. That faction isn’t strong enough to pass legislation on its own, but a Sanity Coalition with Democrats ought to be a majority, and the Southeast and Allegheny delegations in Harrisburg aren’t going to vote to solve PennDOT’s problems without also fixing transit funding. Part of it, I admit, is necessity; we need to start moving now because, if we wait for after the election, we could lose the Cynwyd Line permanently. And finally, if everything this session fails, as it might, the best way to ensure that transit is a priority for the new assembly and governor in 2015 is to establish it as a priority in the Democratic primary now, where there are about 10 candidates lined up for the chance to take out Corbett.

  3. I have a copy of SEPTAs Capital Budget. Your numbers are way way off. According to their budget New Regional Rail cars are budget at $1.419 billion dollars. New trolley cars for Routes 10,11,13,5,34,36,101, and 102 are budget at $1.005 billion. Total cost is $2.423 billion.

    1. Ouch! Well, I said I was using very optimistic numbers. Thanks for the correction.

      Do you happen to know if the entire $2.4 billion for rolling stock is included in SEPTA’S demand of $6.5 billion over ten years, or is it being spread over years further out? Given SEPTA’s historical aversion to debt financing, and the present context of a hostile and capricious General Assembly, I’m guessing it’s all in there.

  4. I just read today that the school system in Camden has a budget of $389 million this year. Camden. Camden schools are better funded than our region’s biggest transportation system. How did the adults in PA ever let this happen?

    1. The Silverliner V order resulted in Hyundai Rotem locating their American assembly plant in South Philadelphia, where it is now building cars for Boston’s MBTA and Denver’s RTD. That’s good manufacturing jobs that would have gone to Fall River, Mass. if we hadn’t been the flagship order. (It wasn’t an unqualified win for SEPTA, of course…) I’m sure the state enjoys its 3.07% of every one of those salaries very much.

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