SEPTA FY 2021 Capital Budget Comments

May 20th, 2020

Catherine Popp-McDonough
Director, Capital Budgets
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority
1234 Market St., 9th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(Submitted via E-Mail to capbudget@septa.org)

Dear Ms. Popp-McDonough:

On behalf of myself and my fellow advocates at 5th Square, I want to say thank you to SEPTA for keeping our region running through our current crisis.  The agency’s management and staff have been doing truly heroic work and have suffered great personal losses because of it. From all of us at 5th Square, a huge thank you.

We recognize that SEPTA is facing a dire financial situation stemming from the dramatic loss in ridership, farebox revenue and potential loss in Turnpike revenue.  We join our fellow advocates both locally and nationally calling on the Turnpike to fulfill its transit funding responsibilities, and demanding Congress to increase the amount of aid to transit agencies in their next relief package.

We sincerely hope that SEPTA considers the following requests in its decision-making for both its Fiscal Year 2021 Capital Budget and the Fiscal Years 2021-2032 Capital Program.

 

Capacity Improvements

Looking at the SEPTA’s 2021 Capital Budget and 2021-2032 Capital Program Proposal, we have seen places where SEPTA has made smart decisions on where to reposition their spending.  Prior to the current crisis, SEPTA was seeing ridership increases on both the Market-Frankford Line and the Regional Rail network. Higher frequency service is the key to increasing capacity to meet these needs - better servicing riders - not expensive bi-level EMU rail cars or costly platform extensions. We hope SEPTA recognizes this in their decision to defer these items in the capital budget, which we agree with. (Page 9

When SEPTA does come around to replace the aging Silverliner IV fleet, we want the Agency to procure for the possibility to convert its current Regional Rail service into high-frequency rapid rail service.

 

Stop Spending on Parking

Another way SEPTA can save money is by getting out of the parking business. We see the agency planning to spend a quarter billion dollars on projects that increase parking capacity at over a half-dozen regional rail stations (Pages 54, 55). Some of these gratuitous parking expansion projects are slated for stations in dense downtown areas, like the 69th Street Transportation Center, already served by multiple modes of transit. Such spending undermines more essential capital projects and incentivizes car ownership by subsidizing riders who have the resources to drive to these stations.

SEPTA needs to explore higher-and-better uses of this land than the temporary storage of personal cars. The agency should develop a Transit-Oriented Development policy, similar one found in the Bay Area, to incentivize well designed, mixed-use, higher density development adjacent to frequent transit. Such development would increase sustainable transit ridership, revitalize communities, enhance quality of life, and strengthen economic competitiveness. By focusing housing and jobs near transit, communities can accommodate new growth while minimizing associated congestion and environmental impacts.

As an alternative to building car parking, SEPTA can provide bicycle parking for a fraction of the cost and space. There are even companies such as Oonee that partners with agencies to build secure, attractive, and inexpensive bicycle storage facilities

 

ADA Accessibility - Station Improvements

We are impressed by SEPTA’s promise of expanding accessibility through slated improvements to dozens of Transit and Regional Rail stations (Pages 56 - 64). These important projects can open the world to people with disabilities, the elderly, and families with small children. These projects need to be fast-tracked to better serve such riders. The system should also have a All Stations Accessibility Program similar one seen with the Chicago Transit Authority that aims to systematically bring accessibility to every station in the system.

Building upon this call for more accessibility, SEPTA needs to prioritize the construction of ramps and high-level platforms at more regional rail stations, especially Zones 1 and 2 stations within Philadelphia. SEPTA has shown that they have the impressive ability to modernize these stations at relatively low-cost. Raising these platforms will also have a side benefit of faster service, and would better position the agency to provide high-frequency rapid rail service, similar to Berlin’s S-Bahn, in the long-term.

 

Bus Improvements

From the line items in the capital budget, we sincerely appreciate the steps the Agency has taken to protect bus and trolley operators. SEPTA took the wise step before COVID to fund and install operator safety shields for the security of their staff, the side-benefit of virus protection has been undoubtedly beneficial. The accelerated funding of automatic passenger counters to provide real-time crowding info and to inform social distancing will be undoubtedly helpful as the Agency moves forward in today’s climate.

In addition to these measures, we ask that SEPTA fund rear door fare validators onboard buses and trolleys.  The agency can achieve more efficient bus travel and better protect operators from viral exposure through having more customers board in the rear.

We also appreciate the progress towards a Comprehensive Bus Network Redesign, with the recent RFP soliciting bids for this process which will finally untangle and bring efficiencies to our current spaghetti of bus lines.

While we applaud the expansion of the Roosevelt Blvd Direct Enhanced Bus Service, the fact that Philadelphia has yet to implement a true bus-only lane is mind-boggling given the amount of congestion we saw before the pandemic -- and inevitably will see again.  We are calling on the agency to fund Automated Bus Lane Enforcement technology and partner with Philadelphia City government to prioritize the creation of bus-only lanes throughout our city.

 

Trolley Modernization

We commend SEPTA on dedicating funding for trolley modernization. However, the Kawaski and PCC-II cars are at or near the end of their useful lives and we cannot afford to delay trolley acquisition and infrastructure and construction any longer. Early action design, specification, and planning work is undoubtedly key for project success, but it will be wasted money and effort without committing to an acquisition and construction timeline. 

The modernization project is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide equitable, sustainable, and efficient transportation. Riders deserve a modern system that is:

  • Accessible to people of all ages and abilities with near-level boarding
  • Integrated with the streetscape and surrounding neighborhoods with pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly facilities
  • Fast and reliable with all-door boarding, stop consolidation, and signal priority

Some of the goals are achievable by SEPTA alone and others will require collaboration with the City, PennDOT, community groups, and other stakeholders. While the project should not be rushed, it is critical to have the modernized system in place before the aging fleet causes a cascade of breakdowns, delays, and lost ridership that may never return. The West Philadelphia and Girard Avenue trolley lines serve neighborhoods that are primarily black and brown and have high rates of poverty. Trolley riders rely on the system to access jobs, schooling, medical care and more, and they deserve a modern, accessible, reliable system. We thank SEPTA for its commitments thus far and call on SEPTA to further prioritize this “project of regional significance” in its capital planning process.

 

SEPTA Key

We are advocating for an enhanced availability of SEPTA Key. It has been a long road, but crucial equity issues were missed during the initial rollout. Increasing the number of Key kiosks in various locations, like libraries, city facilities, recreation centers, and corner grocery stores would provide more opportunities for more riders to obtain and refill the fare instrument. SEPTA needs to also provide Key kiosks at bus stops: on the Boulevard Direct service, on Walnut / Chestnut Streets in Center City and University City, and on high-volume transfer points throughout the system.

Combining Regional Rail and Transit kiosks and placing these kiosks in all Zone 1 and Zone 2 rail stations would greatly increase Key card usage and would decrease the friction of transferring from rail to transit. Additionally, offering riders an option to order a SEPTA Key mailed to them would also greatly reduce the hassle of Key acquisition.

We also applaud SEPTA’s commitment towards new payment technology, accepting payment via mobile phone and contactless card, in the capital budget that will not only modernize the Key system, but will also provide an added factor of convenience and safety for the rider.

We also advocate for rear-door fare validators installed onboard buses and trolleys to speed boarding, fare payment, and to protect operators from coronavirus. Such technology would be especially helpful on articulated buses to shorten the dwell time at stops.

In anticipation of more multimodal trips, compatibility with Indego’s payment platform and other systems such as PATCO would be ideal.

In summary, we believe these changes would position SEPTA to enhance its commitment to equity, provide an improved customer experience, and work to restore its ridership once our region emerges from the COVID-19 outbreak. We hope that SEPTA considers our requests in its decision-making for both its Fiscal Year 2021 Capital Budget and the Fiscal Years 2021-2032 Capital Program.

                                                                                                Sincerely,

                                                                                                5th Square