Bridgeport viaduct reopens today as capital funding becomes grave crisis

It is 4:45am. The first northbound Norristown High Speed Line (NHSL) train in revenue service is about to cross the Bridgeport viaduct into Norristown, ending a four month closure for critical repair work. NHSL Norristown riders can breathe a sigh of relief, with cumbersome shuttle busing no longer part of their daily routine.

But as one major repair project ends, the prospect of starting others that are just as needed grows dimmer. Not a week has gone by since mid-September, that either House Majority Leader Turzai, Governor Corbett, PennDOT Secretary Schoch, or some other elected official (or their anonymous-source staffers) have repeatedly pledged a vote in the House of Representatives on the SB1 transportation funding bill within the week. No vote has occurred, presumably because the votes to pass aren’t there yet, and the forecasts coming out of Harrisburg are dismal.

The ongoing hangup seems to be an insistence on the part of conservative Republicans to remove prevailing wage rules on transportation projects between $25,000 and $100,000. That is a move designed to antagonize unions, although the level of the provocation far outweighs the level of damage to union workers’ interests, especially compared to the most likely alternative, which is a massive cutback at PennDOT. This mostly reads as what Josh Marshall once called the “Bitch-Slap Theory of electoral politics” — the substance of the attack is irrelevant, while making the attack is a goal in itself. Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians, House Democrats have closed ranks with their union supporters, and there aren’t enough Republican votes to pass transportation funding out of the House without Democratic help. It’s admirable that the Democratic Party isn’t throwing labor under the bus, but it wasn’t necessary in the first place; they and we are all already under this bus, by virtue of having lost all three elected branches of government. SB1 was already a Tea Party-friendly shit sandwich, going through extra circumlocutions to give cover to Gov. Corbett and his no-new-taxes pledge, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances.

Harrisburg Democrats have clearly been tempted by the strategy option to wait out Tom Corbett, who will no longer be Governor come January 20th, 2015, barring the biggest choke job in Pennsylvania since the 1964 Phillies. Unfortunately, SEPTA’s riders can’t wait that long; according to SEPTA’s Service Triage plan, the Cynwyd Line will be out of service before then, and the Media/Elwyn Line will follow almost immediately thereafter. Crum Creek Viaduct is in as bad of shape as Bridgeport was, and apart from some emergency repairs to keep it open on recent weekends, there is no money for SEPTA to keep it safe to operate. More than 11,000 daily riders will lose service on these two lines. Construction unions should signal to their Democratic allies that they should take the deal on the table if it means getting transportation projects like Crum Creek Viaduct repair funded, in exchange for a rollback of the offending change, and possibly other concessions, in 2015. The towns of Delaware County along the Media/Elwyn Line, both the white-collar professional boroughs west of Swarthmore, and the blue-collar working class townships east of Morton, will remember (or, with any amount of skill by the Democratic general election candidate, be constantly reminded).

SB1, with the prevailing wage rule change, is even more of a shit sandwich than it was as a clean bill, but it’s the only thing on the table that will get SEPTA through the next two years. If you have a Republican representative, call them and urge them to support a clean SB1. If you have a Democratic representative, tell them to negotiate with the construction unions to get to a deal. It is 4:45am now, but the clock is still ticking down to midnight.

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  1. Is there an actual date by which a deal must be made or else the R6C and R3ME will be terminated? Once that actual date is given, I wouldn’t expect any movement on this until, say, three days before that date….

      1. In that case, I wonder if it might be wise for SEPTA to hire some structural engineers to declare the Crum Creek Viaduct “unsafe for use when temperatures drop below freezing” or something — not necessarily technically true, but if an engineer signs off on it SEPTA has a plausible reason to start canceling R3ME service. A few days of cancellations, and Harrisburg will be kicked into action in a way that “we’ll have to terminate service in a couple years” will never kick them into action … and funds might appear *in time to do the actual repairs so that the line won’t get shut down for reals*. It’s a gamble for SEPTA — a few days of cancellations might lose them substantial ridership (cf strikes, etc) — but they may have no better move at this point.

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