The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.
In Pennsylvania, the conversation around public transit often involves an awful lot of “remember when.”
Remember when the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest corporation in the world and paid dividends for 100 years straight? Remember when you could take the train to Cape May? Do you remember when we had the largest trolley system in the world?
This year – thanks to the confluence of a vast array of federal infrastructure and Pennsylvania’s unique “fiscal cliff” – state leaders have the opportunity to decide in upcoming budget negotiations whether public transit in Pennsylvania remains in “remember when” territory, or if the state can finally begin to reverse the decades of service cuts and route disruptions that have left our regional transit system a shell of itself .
Thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure agreement, billions of federal dollars are available for various local transportation projects. The bill provides funds to expand accessibility options such as elevators for riders of older rail systems, including Philadelphia’s Broad Street Line, Market-Frankford Line, and trolleys. There’s also money to help replace SEPTA’s trolley fleet – some of which date back to the 1980s – and funds for system extensions such as the King of Prussia Rail project.
There’s a catch, though: To get the federal money, Harrisburg lawmakers must pledge state and local funds to help cover the bill.
This hasn’t always happened before. Compared to peer transit systems – such as the MBTA in Boston or the DC Metro – SEPTA has long received less state and local support for capital costs, a gap that has only grown in recent years. while regions such as New Jersey, New York, Chicago and Boston have made investing in their transit systems a priority.
While observers expect Gov. Tom Wolf to include dedicated support for Pennsylvania transit agencies in his Feb. 8 budget speech, the administration has yet to publicly confirm that.
This would be both prudent and popular.
Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on ridership across the country, there is evidence of widespread support for transit projects.
In 2021, all 11 ballot measures dedicating new revenue to public transit service were approved by voters across the country. Cities like Seattle, which have far less legacy infrastructure than places like Philly, have managed to increase their transit ridership.
In the Commonwealth – where the Philadelphia area provides nearly 40% of economic activity – public transit remains an important way for people to get around.
In pre-pandemic times, the 13-mile Market-Frankford El carried nearly 200,000 passengers a day, compared to the 130,000 motorists who take the 14-mile stretch of I-76 between King of Prussia and Roosevelt Boulevard in one typical day.
Unlike freeways, where more users mean more congestion and slower journeys, more transit users facilitate more service, which means journeys get faster, not slower. This is an important dynamic to consider at a time when the Southeast is home to most of Pennsylvania’s population growth.
Thanks to the federal infrastructure package, Pennsylvania has a real shot at upgrading the largest public transit system in the Commonwealth. Now it’s time for Wolf and state lawmakers to make it happen.