Act 89 Kept SEPTA Trains in Service. Now Funding Is Falling Short.

PennDOT says transportation law will miss funding mark by $6 billion. SEPTA downplays the report.

Septa regional rail train

Photo Credit: Jeff Fusco

The state law that has helped SEPTA begin to make progress on its backlog of infrastructure repairs will fall $6 billion short of its funding goal, officials say, but local transit officials downplayed the report.

TribLive reported the shortfall Tuesday morning, the same day PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards was to deliver the news to the Pennsylvania Senate Transportation Committee. 

SEPTA officials have frequently praised the law, Act 89, for keeping the agency’s trains in service. The law, signed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett in 2013, provided funding for transportation projects all over the state — and allowed SEPTA to nearly double its capital budget. (The bill may also be the reason Corbett lost his job; the spending and taxes it required was credited with diminishing his support among Republicans.)

“The Corbett administration over promised projects by at least $6 billion compared to projections of available revenue the next 12 years following Act 89,” Richards prepared testimony said, according to TribLive. “Absent a legislative solution, a number of these project(sic) may not advance in the next 12 years.”

By 2013, SEPTA had accumulated a $5 billion backlog of maintenance and equipment that needed replacing. Act 89 allowed the agency to finally get started on the list.

“There’s not a day goes by that one us here at SEPTA doesn’t thank our lucky stars for Act 89,” Jeffrey Knueppel, then SEPTA’s Deputy General Manager, told last year. “It came just in time. We were literally on the brink of having to close down service because some of the infrastructure would not have been safe enough.” (Knueppel has since been promoted to the agency’s general manager.)

Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s current deputy general manager, said today the news from PennDot wasn’t a surprise. The act provided about $2 billion a year in new state transportation funding, he said, when as much as $3 billion was needed to serve all the identified needs. Similarly, he said, SEPTA increased its capital funding budget from around $300 million a year to $550 million a year — even though officials believed as much $700 million a year would be needed for maintenance, replacement, and repairs over 20 years. The agency works closely with funding partners and the public to prioritize its spending, he said.

“It’s not an emergency,” he said of Richards’ testimony, and added:  “I don’t think it’s really new news.”

But, Burnfield said, the increased budget has been invaluable to SEPTA.

“It’s been a real enhancement to our program — without it, we would have had to shut down certain lines,” he said. Now:  “We’re building bridges, we’re buying locomotives, we’re moving forward.”