With SEPTA going through yet another funding crisis, the future of transit is once again a hot topic. As cities look forward to find solutions to the problems of tomorrow- increased populations, the effects of high carbon emissions, and rising fuel costs- transit issues become more important. From everything to figuring out the best way to plan for the development of residential and commercial zones to helping area employers get their employees to and from work, transit offers answers.
I spoke with Council At-Large candidate and Neighborhood Networks founder Marc Stier about some of Philadelphia’s transportation issues. Stier also sits on the steering committee of the PA Transit Coalition.
I don’t know a lot about rapid transit issues in the city. I do know we don’t have enough of it. There are no plans to expand it. From what I understand, one of the problems is that the people who sit on the board of SEPTA live in the suburbs and don’t consider very much the needs in the city.
That’s part of the problem. But the first problem is the funding problem. We’re constantly fighting to save the system we have. We don’t have the dedicated state funding that transit systems all around the country have. Look at Dallas. Most of the funds for that system come from a dedicated tax source. That means you don’t have to go through appropriations every year, that there’s a certain tax source that is dedicated, and it grows every year, and it’s a tax source that increases with inflation.
So you usually use a gas tax?
A gas tax. Or Dallas and Charlotte have regional sales taxes. Some areas have dedicated state funding. For example, most of the funds for the “T” in Boston come from a state dedicated fund. If you don’t have dedicated funds that are predictable over time, it’s very hard to do long range planning. The second problem is that SEPTA is in a “bunker mode”. They’re constantly attacked, they’re constantly underfunded. They don’t do planning. They have some good people that have come up with these great ideas for improving and expanding the system, and it must be the most frustrating job in the world becuase the leadership at SEPTA simply never provides an idea of what a great system would look like. I could give you some great ideas about how to radically transform the system.
Lay ’em on me.
OK. Number one, we need electronic fare systems. And we don’t need one like New York has, we need something really sophisticated. You have a card in your hand, or you can actually keep it in your pocket because they read it as you walk through. And I’ll tell you some of the things a system like that might do. One thing it would do is it would make it easier to make transfers. We have a complicated transfer system. We charge too much for transfers. It makes it easier to do variable pricing for on-peak and off-peak.
Would people pay per trip or monthly or how would that work?
It could be done a number of different ways. But basically this electronic card would be read as it goes through and, depending on the time of day, the price might differ. You could do variable monthly plans depending on whether or not you go mostly on peak times or off-peak times. And you could set them up so the computer knows how to give you the best price. You don’t even have to worry about that, you just know that it’s cheaper to go in off-peak hours.
So is the idea that SEPTA users would pay monthly, yearly, or through a membership?
You could pay monthly to get the card, but the amount might even vary depending on the usage of the card. You could do things like creating day passes for some of the lines on commercial corridors. I live in Mt. Airy and the Germantown Avenue commercial corridor from Chestnut Hill to Germantown is a major shopping area. Like 5th Street, like Frankford Avenue, like Baltimore Avenue, like Lancaster Avenue, they’re hurting. Some are doing better than others, but a lot of them are hurting. People tend to go out to the suburbs to shop. Up in Chestnut Hill people go to Chemical Road. Suppose we enabled people to travel up and down these commercial corridors, not going down to Center City, but up and down the commercial corridors as many times as they want in one day? All of a sudden it’ll make sense to people to go up and down the Avenue to shop. We could put back the trolley on Germantown Avenue. It’d be fun. People would much rather do that than go to a mall.
It would be fun, you’re right. If you’ve been to one mall, you’ve been to them all, whereas shopping on these corridors you’re going to find unique stores.
That’s right. And there’s no reason why you can’t have the Gap or Marshalls come to Germantown Avenue too, but they’d be mixed in with some funky, locally owned stores. It’d be more fun for everyone. So, electronic fare system, that’s one idea.
The second one is converting our commuter rail to light rail. Light rail has a number of advantages. One is you raise the platform so you have big wide open doors and that enables people to get on and off instead of in 3 minutes, in a minute and a half. And the cars accelerate and decelerate faster. These are small changes, but if you add it up, over the course of the day, with 15 stops on each train, 10, 12 trains a day, you could dramatically increase the carrying capacity of regional rail. You could run the system every 15 minutes. You could run express trains out to the suburbs, you could open up a lot of new stations in the city.
It sounds great to me. I went to the Growing Greener Cities Symposium and I was struck by a statistic I heard there, that the return on investment for a light rail system is something like 9 to 1 over a relatively short amount of time. It was an unbelievable return on investment. I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t everyone be behind something like that?
Lack of vision? Lack of energy? It’s endemic to the politics of the region. The only government that can lead in the region is Philadelphia, because we’re the 800 pound gorilla. And Philadelphia’s mayor and City Council would rather say SEPTA’s a state agency and we don’t have any responsibility for it than actually get out in front of it. They have a transportation committee on City Council that I don’t believe has met in six years.
At least in all the time I’ve been doing transit activism I don’t recall a single hearing.
What can you do?
One thing I could do, if I get elected to City Council, I want to be the Chair of that transportation committee and I am going to call SEPTA to account. We’re going to have hearings, and we’re going to talk about what sort of visionary plans they have, and if they don’t have any, we’re going to demand that they come up with them. We’ll get some city money to do some planning if we have to.
I think the people heading the riverfront planning initiative, PennPraxis and the director of the Planning Commission are both interested in more visionary ideas.
I talked with Harris Steinberg at PennPraxis. I proposed about six weeks ago at the Town Hall at the Convention Center a transit plan for the riverfront. We have a railroad line that goes up and down Columbus Boulevard. There’s also an unused freight line that goes from about Pier 70 almost down to the sports complexes. Suppose we put a trolley on that line, we could put the parking for the casinos, if we have to have casinos on the waterfront, I’m still not reconciled to that ideas, but the parking could be off site, down by the sports arenas. That has a lot of advantages. First of all, as you probably know, the parking garages are as big or bigger than the casinos. So there’s an enormous amount of space on the waterfront where we could do much better things that are more valuable than that. I think it’s good for the casino operators because it reduces traffic. Some people who like the casinos say, oh, isn’t it great to be able to go to the riverfront for casinos instead of going down to Atlantic City. I’m not sure if you live where I live in the city that it’s going to be any faster to get to the waterfront than Atlantic City, because with the traffic, it’s going to be just horrible. It’s going to be horrible for the neighborhoods, it’s going to be horrible for the casinos themselves, it’s going to be horrible for the port because it’ll make it difficult for trucks to get down to the port. Additionally, thinking long-term about what kind of residential development would come along the riverfront as well as recreational uses, we have no idea how to get people there because of the monstrosity of I-95.
Say people are living on the waterfront. We have shopping down in South Philly. And there’s a track right there. That’s the beauty of it. If you’re constructing a line, it’s very expensive. But there are federal capital subsidies. The way they decide how to give money is in part by how much of the project is being funded locally. An existing track would count as our local contribution. And track is about 80% of the cost of a new line. We have the track, we have a major local contribution, we’d just have to buy the cars. Then we’d need another loop going to Center City. It’s a little tricky because trolley gauge is different from railroad gauge, but in Europe they have dual-gauge cars. They have cars that run on old railroads, on heavy rail, and then they come off that rail and run on the street.
I’ve also heard of super-fast buses. Have you heard of that? Where they get on rails and go faster?
The dedicated bus ways? Yeah. In Ottawa they do the whole transit system with buses on dedicated bus ways. We have a great railroad infrastructure. In fact, transit engineers from all over the world see it and think it’s incredible and then they laugh at how little use we make of it.
Here’s another idea about buses. They’re doing this in Germany. Every SEPTA bus already has a GPS system. They could give us real-time information about when the bus is late. They could, but they don’t. If you combine GPS with computer mapping software you could actually run flexible bus routes, provided you also have the electronic fare system in place. Here’s an example. Suppose you’re in Center City and you want to take a line to the Olney transit center, and then you want to take a bus to Doylestown. You come out of the subway and you walk through an open area that reads that electronic fare card, and on the monitor above you it will tell you which of two buses you should get on for that route. They’re reading your card, and they know the address where you’re going. So one bus skips the city stops and just goes out to the suburbs and the other bus does the city stops. Here’s the really neat thing. If the bus doesn’t run the whole route it has a little more time to be flexible. So, there’s a computer on the bus that knows where everyone lives. And there’s computer mapping software. The bus driver gets a route that’s different every time, that takes everyone on to within two blocks of where they live. Can you imagine? I own two cars, but I would sell at least one and probably the second as well if I could be guaranteed that I would never have to take more than a two block walk. And if you want to go somewhere you call up or use your computer, your address is registered in the system, and they’ll tell you where to go and what time.
I can’t even imagine going from where we are now to that. Is there anywhere where they’re doing that?
They’re called route-buses. They have them in a couple of cities in Germany. And they’re not enormously expensive. The electronic fare system would probably cost $60 million. Computer mapping, software route planning on every bus. For the whole fleet of buses? You can buy it now as an add-on for your car for $1000, so assuming we have someone besides SEPTA do the procurement, we could probably get it for about half that.
How do you think SEPTA would react to that?
I don’t know. I can’t talk to SEPTA. I spend ten hours a week and sometimes 30 hours a week lobbying for them, but that doesn’t mean they take my phonecalls.
Does Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) have any overlap in this?
They do do some transit planning, and if I get elected, I’d like to be the city representative to the DVRPC. Without political leadership, this stuff doesn’t happen.
Is there anything else I haven’t asked you about?
The Roosevelt Boulevard we have to do. There have been plans to put in a rail line that would connect some of the lines. I have a planning study sitting on my desk that was done two or three years ago that is such a no-brainer. The projections of usage are so great.
What do you recommend for dedicated funding? Do you think selling the turnpike is a good idea?
It depends on how much we get. My concern with that is when you’re selling or leasing a capital asset, good budgeting practice tells you to use capital funds to expand the system, not yeild operating funds. We need a dedicated tax. They’re talking about dedicating more of the sales tax, or raising the personal income tax to some extent to provide public transit. And it has to happen soon and it will happen soon, becuase we clearly also need a lot of money invested in our roads and bridges which are getting very old. Even though I’m a transit advocate, I grew up in the country, and I know that out in the rural areas of the state they’re not going to have mass transit. So if we have to have a political deal, put transit and roads together.
Contact Marc Stier via his website: www.stier.net.