by David A. Love | ecoWURD Contributor
When the government finally reopened after a 34-day partial shutdown that was the longest ever in U.S. history, public talk centered on how the state of disarray at the nation’s airports finally broke the impasse.
But one other crucial mode of urban transportation was left out of the conversation: Mass transit. As that shutdown sent shockwaves throughout the economy, not only did it handicap air traffic control systems, but it also posed a major threat to public transit in large cities. Yet, among the many untold stories that unfolded as a crippling Washington stalemate continued was how the shutdown would eventually hamper essential public transportation.
Take a major city like Philadelphia, for example. SEPTA is Philly’s affectionately – and sometimes not so lovingly – known public transportation system. It’s what many people use when they’re trying to get from point A to point B.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Administration is also among the largest and oldest mass transit systems in the country. It is the 5th largest system of its kind and 4 million people throughout five Philadelphia-area counties need it to keep the region in motion. Indeed, in Philly, SEPTA (not unlike the legendary MTA in New York City) is a way of life for people who live, commute and grow up here.
It’s also one of a number of public transportation systems throughout the country that are crucial to the lives and livelihood of working people and vulnerable populations. That ridership is disproportionately comprised of African Americans and other people of color.
Brandon Shaw is a regular SEPTA rider who worried that a protracted government shutdown would have changed things in a very bad way for the transit system … and the people who ride it. “If this were to go on for a very long time, even if it is one train that gets cut, that affects their ability to get to work on time or to get home,” said Shaw.
IT’S ALL IN THE FUNDING STREAMS
At issue is the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), an arm of the Department of Transportation which provides most of the federal grants to mass transit. It also finances transportation projects and operating expenses for local and state transit authorities. Only one quarter of $11 billion of federal transit project funds was distributed for the new fiscal year beginning last October. When the FTA closed for business during the shutdown and its employees were furloughed, some mass transit systems started to feel the pinch, forced to dig into their cash reserves and rely on other sources of funding.
Aside from the federal employees themselves, those who rely heavily on public transportation for work, school, doctor appointments and other activities are negatively impacted. Nationwide, a majority of riders (60 percent) are people of color, with Black people as the largest group at 24 percent,according to a report from the American Public Transportation Association. The study also found that 71 percent are employed full- or part-time, and 7 percent are students. In addition, 49 percent of people rely on public transportation for work, with 21 percent using mass transit to go shopping, as well as 17 percent who take the bus, train or trolley for recreational spending in the local economy.
A 2016 Pew study parsing through federal data found 15 percent of public transportation riders are low-income or making under $30,000 a year.
The shutdown had already started affecting mass transit across America. In Chicago, it wasn’t just affecting daily operations of the CTA transit system, but it was keeping the agency from its funding streams for ongoing construction expenses such as station renovations. The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority in Tennessee, which receives 16 percent of its budget from federal resources, was on the cusp of cutting bus service if the shutdown had kept going.
The poverty rate in Chattanooga is 21 percent. With low-income residents more likely to use mass transit, how would they have been impacted?
NJ Transit, neighbor system to SEPTA, depends on $2 billion in federal government grants, accounting for 20 percent of its operating costs, 43 percent of its capital budget and all of its debt service. A prolonged shutdown would create difficulties for the agency – which has little flexibility to cut spending or raise fares – and force it to possibly issue bonds or seek state assistance.. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority depends on federal funding for one quarter of its $33 billion capital improvement plan, and the expansion of the Los Angeles Metro has already been disrupted. All this as 50 applications for federal aid for transit projects were on indefinite hold due to the shutdown.
WHO NEEDS SEPTA THE MOST?
The longer the shutdown, the longer the widespread damage to U.S. transit services, with smaller and rural operators feeling the impact first by cutting services. Larger systems, whose federal funds are limited to capital purchases, are able to weather the storm a bit longer.
Philadelphia relies heavily on SEPTA, the local public transit system, as a vital engine for the economic well-being of the city and region. Yet it is arguably underfunded by billions of dollars in Harrisburg – with critics pointing to a continuing urban and rural divide, and racial tensions in Pennsylvania’s capital as a reason for the hold up. Philadelphia accounts for 69 percent of SEPTA riders, and the suburbs provide 27 percent. African Americans are the overwhelmingly dominant group on SEPTA with passengers at 49 percent, followed by Whites at 33 percent, and Latinos and Asians at 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
Many who rely on public transportation are among the most economically and socially vulnerable in Philadelphia. For example, 56 percent of passengers have an annual household income below $50,000, while 29 percent earn below $25,000, and 15 percent make under $15,000.
SEPTA receives $924 million in subsidies, including $735 million from the state, $80 million from the federal government, and the remaining balance from the city of Philadelphia and Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties.
“At this time, there has been no impact to SEPTA operations, and we continue moving forward with projects as part of our capital improvement program,” Kristin Mestre-Velez, Public Information Manager for SEPTA Media Relations told ecoWURD regarding the effect of the government shutdown.
Perhaps, that’s not too surprising: SEPTA has a 2019 capital budget of $749.6 million – of which federal funding is $11.75 million or 1.5 percent. But there is a 12-year capital budget of $7.4 billion to address issues such as bridge repair, signal technology improvements, safety and security measures, track improvements and station rehabilitation, and those will need federal funding. Not to mention federal appropriations for major rail line centers like Philadelphia’s 30th Street station which is currently under renovation. SEPTA, in fact, was just awarded a $15 million Department of Transportation grant towards that project.
“I think the longer the federal shutdown is, the bigger the impact is. It’s going to trickle down to state dollars that are available to local agencies like SEPTA,” State Rep. Donna Bullock, who represents the 195th district in Philadelphia, told ecoWURD shortly before the White House and Congressional leaders finally reached a temporary 3-week deal that would end the shutdown – at least for now.
Bullock pointed out that SEPTA is used by working families and is an important part of their lives. “We rely heavily on SEPTA. It powers our economy and it will have a significant impact on families who cannot get to medical appointments, to school and work,” she said. “There are still some families who rely on Amtrak…that will also be detrimental to families who work in Harrisburg or Trenton or other areas that are not accessible through SEPTA.”
Shaw, who is also a board member of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passenger, said that, thankfully, SEPTA has a service stabilization fund. That extra pot can reduce the agency’s sensitivity to funding cuts. Still, even small service changes can make a big difference. “Not being able to get to work forces people to lose their job. If they lose their job they can’t pay their bills and people are unable to feed their family. It hurts the tax base, the local shops, because people don’t have money. I hope that never happens.”