Bob Casey is Right: Let’s Tax Pennsylvania’s Drivers to Save SEPTA

Rural Pennsylvanians who hate Philly, repeat after me: SEPTA is not welfare. It's economic development.

On the surface, the proposal Sen. Bob Casey made this week at 30th Street Station seems like it was designed in a lab to infuriate Philly-hating rural Pennsylvanians, to make Daryl Metcalfe hulk out in a rampage of sputtering anti-transit rage.

In fact, let’s break the proposal down into its component parts just to savor those effects a few seconds longer, shall we? Here’s the idea that Casey offered:

Congress should raise taxes.

Actually, it should raise gasoline taxes.

The kind that drivers pay.

During an era of record-high gas prices.


So we can spend more money on SEPTA.

Honestly, it sounds a little bit like a practical joke—uh, doesn’t Casey have to run for office statewide?—and if so, beautifully executed.

Except, no, it appears Casey was absolutely serious:

Casey, flanked by SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey and Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, said transit agencies and local transportation planners need to know how much money to expect and when to expect it. “Careening from one short-term transportation bill to another has increased uncertainty for agencies like SEPTA,” Casey said. “Congress should begin work now on a long-term transportation bill that allows public agencies to plan into the future.”

“As transit agencies face shrinking contributions from states and municipalities, we need to provide consistent funding,” Casey said in a letter Monday to House and Senate leaders. “Failure to do so could result in cuts to routes that commuters depend upon and, ultimately, job losses.”

Darn straight.

It gets mentioned a lot around Philadelphia, but in the wake of last week’s SEPTA announcement that it has put together a doomsday plan to basically eviscerate regional rail and drastically cut back other services, it clearly needs to be said again and again, at the top of our lungs, until anti-urban ideologues in Harrisburg and D.C. get it into their heads, once and for all.

SEPTA is not welfare. It’s economic development.

SEPTA is not welfare. It’s economic development.

SEPTA is not welfare. It’s economic development.

Critics will point out that Pennsylvanians already spend more than 30 cents per gallon on state and federal gasoline taxes—more than double the tax in New Jersey, and good for 15th overall.

Me? I’d argue that adding one more cent per gallon would immediately raise $60 million per year—the state’s drivers consumed a bit more than 6 billion gallons of gasoline in 2009—which amounts to an additional $7.17 per year for each of Pennsylvania’s 8.37 million licensed drivers. They can afford it.

Critics will say, as rural Pennsylvanians always do, “Why should we help pay for what’s going on in Philly? The city’s a drag on the rest of the state.”

Me? I’d just point out, again, that southeastern Pennsylvania has 32 percent of the population and 40 percent of the state’s economic activity, while drawing just 27 percent of the state transportation dollars, which effectively means that we in the Philadelphia region are subsidizing transportation funding for the rest of the state.

And me, I’d point out that studies show cities which grow the number of miles covered by public transportation typically see an increase in the area’s gross domestic product. SEPTA helps drive the state’s economy, in other words; we can only imagine what would happen to that economy if SEPTA’s doomsday scenario were implemented.

So Bob Casey is right. Let’s tax the state’s drivers to pay for SEPTA. It’s not a joke at all.