Poor SEPTA. It’s the last transit system left in America that still uses tokens. Many subway and trolley stations could use serious rehabilitation and the ’80s-era Kawasaki cars that comprise West Philadelphia’s trolley fleet need to be replaced. Dreams of reopening defunct trolley lines or providing affordable rail service to northwestern Philadelphia, or the Great Northeast, will not be realized under the status quo.
As Dan Denvir recently chronicled in the City Paper, SEPTA took over privately built transit systems that were already struggling when the public inherited them in the 1960s. The city’s eroding tax base, the federal government’s post-Carter parsimony in urban areas, and Harrisburg’s chronic unreliability all contribute to SEPTA’s plight.
What is needed, quite simply, is more money. Unlike many other transit authorities, SEPTA relies largely on federal and state funding, while Philadelphia and the six other counties that benefit from its services don’t offer much support at all.
“We have been looking into the idea of more local funding for mass transit, a region-wide tax to support SEPTA,” says Andy Sharpe, communications director for the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP). “You see other metro areas that are actually constructing new stations and expanding their system with local funding. You just don’t see that here in the Delaware Valley, but it is a dialogue that we have begun.”
Regional taxing initiatives to pay for expanding and modernizing public transit have been gaining momentum across the United States over the last decade. The Center for Transportation Excellence is dedicated to championing such initiatives, usually by means of ballot measures which they consider more reliable than simple legislative action. Since the CTE began tracking transit investment ballot initiatives in 2000, 71 percent have passed. That’s more than twice the standard win rate for ballot measures overall.
The typical model includes a small increase in the property or sales tax, spread out over many years, to fund specific projects. Los Angeles’ Measure R was a 2008 ballot initiative that raised sales taxes by a half cent until 2039, generating $40 billion in revenue. Measure R passed by a stunning 68 percent, clearing the two-thirds supermajority that is needed to pass most tax increases in California. The initiative’s architects carefully laid out exactly what the revenue would be spent on: Designating the rail lines that would be expanded, where new bus routes would be placed, and which roads would be broadened.
This specificity proved popular. Precise earmarking allows voters to know exactly what they are voting for. (Since 2008, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s has been attempting to speed up Measure R’s expansions from 30 years to 10 by borrowing money against the future revenues raised by the sales tax. This November, Measure J is on the ballot to extend the tax to net more revenue.)
“We see a split in the success rate between measures that are more general and fairly ill-defined — they tend not to do as well as something that is very specific,” says Jason Jordan, director of the Center for Transportation Excellence. “[It helps to have] A very clear proposition and a lot of accountability baked in so people can know exactly what the project is, exactly how much it will cost and exactly how long it will take to pay for it, [with no funds] siphoned off due to legislative decisions.”
Measure R had to go through the state government — both the governor and the legislature — and it is likely that a regional tax in the Delaware Valley would face similar strictures. But Los Angeles’s transit advocates went to Sacramento with positive poll numbers and the backing of the local business groups (including the city’s Chamber of Commerce), and faced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, generally considered a moderate on environmental issues, and a Democratic-controlled legislature. Delaware Valley advocates currently face a state government that is under complete Republican control, and a governor with little love for urban areas. DVARP reports that none of the regional Chambers of Commerce have expressed interest in a local tax for SEPTA.
There are two other models, beyond Los Angeles, that offer more gradual options for SEPTA (although approval from Harrisburg would probably still be required). Last year Durham County, N.C. voters approved by 60 percent a half-cent sales tax earmarked for transit projects, including an immediate update and expansion of its bus system. But a significant chunk of the revenue was banked and put towards a regional rail line to connect Durham County with Orange County and Wake County (homes of Chapel Hill and Raleigh, respectively) pending approval of similar taxes there. Once all three counties have raised the revenue, construction will begin.
Part of the revenues from half-cent tax increase in Durham County, N.C. went to a regional rail line linking Durham to Wake and Orange counties.
Applying such a model to SEPTA’s case is complicated by the sheer number of counties (seven in three states) that would have to kick in, but it demonstrates how the city could advance alone at first, to be followed by the other counties. According to Jordan, Salt Lake City adopted this strategy: It passed a sales tax on its own and immediately began building a system that was focused within the central city. After the system’s popularity was proven, a plan was outlined for expansion into the surrounding counties, which then bought into the proposal with their own funding.
All of these initiatives reverse engineering the traditional understanding of transit funding. In the past, local money got laid down last, usually as a match to federal dollars. Now local entities are taking the first step. Federal, state and private dollars begin to flow once the region has established its credibility.
SEPTA needs a legislator or an organization to lead the charge. But Sharpe stresses that DVARP is very much in the preliminary stages of the planning process, and no other organizations have signed on in support. “Unfortunately,” says Sharpe, “it’s probably not something that is going to happen any time soon.”
Nationally, public support continues to look promising for these ventures. A recent Natural Resources Defense Council poll found large majorities of Americans interested in paying higher taxes for better transit options and less driving. The Center for Transportation Excellence’s tally of the transit ballot wins this year is 89 percent.
Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.