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SEPTA says it may shutter local rail line in 2015

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As part of a proposed “Service Realignment Plan” released several weeks ago by Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority officials, service on the Media/Elwyn regional rail line, which provides service between Elwyn and Center City Philadelphia and serves Swarthmore, would be suspended indefinitely in 2015. The plan, which has been deemed a “doomsday scenario” by many in the regional media, will go into effect at the end of the year if the state fails to provide additional funding for the maintenance of the SEPTA system, officials say.

The plan would dramatically curtail SEPTA rail service over the next 10 years. By 2023, nine of 13 regional rail lines would be suspended, another two would be truncated and service would be curtailed on the remaining four. All city and suburban trolley service, including the 101 trolley which serves the Springfield Mall and Media, would be suspended. The Norristown high-speed line would be truncated. And Broad-Ridge Spur subway service and Broad Street line express subway service would be suspended.

According to the plan, trolleys would be replaced by slower and less reliable buses, but most regional rail lines, including the Media/Elwyn line, would not. SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said the authority does not have the resources to do so.

If rail services are suspended, it would likely cost millions and take years to bring them back into service.

The Media/Elwyn line suspension would hit Swarthmore hard, though Vice President for Facilities and Services Stu Hain said that it would not significantly affect the college’s parking and transportation master plan. He said only approximately four percent of those who commute daily to Swarthmore take the train.

Nina Johnson, a visiting assistant professor in sociology and anthropology and black studies, is in that four percent. She lives near Philadelphia City Hall and relies on the line to get to work each day and to get around the area. She said she does not have a driver’s license and takes SEPTA in part to help the environment. The closure of the line “would make it impossible for someone like me to do what I believe in,” she said.

Hain said the college encourages students and employees to take the train, and participates in a program that allows employees to save some tax money if they commute via public transportation

The Media/Elwyn line, which has a stop in University City, is also used by many students who take courses at the University of Pennsylvania. The school reimburses students for those ticket expenses.

Paul Chung ’14, who this semester is taking his first course at Penn, Business Chinese, relies on the line to get to class. “The only other ‘viable’ SEPTA public transportation route would be to take the 109 bus all the way to 69th Street Terminal, then transfer to the Market-Frankford line and get off at 34th Street,” he said. “I don’t think many students know of this alternative detour route because it is not only inconvenient but also requires much more time to get to University City.”

Hain said the college does not yet know how it would handle transportation to Penn if the line closed.

Many other students use the train for less “serious” purposes.

“I think one of key benefits of Swarthmore is access to Philadelphia,” said Student Council president Gabby Capone ’14, “and the main way students experience Philadelphia is through the train.” The college advertises its proximity prominently in its promotional materials and on its website. There is a “next trains to Philadelphia” information box on the college homepage

Last semester StuCo launched a program to provide free rail tickets to students who wanted to visit Philadelphia for fun on weekends. The program, which provided 40 tickets each weekend, routinely received 100–200 requests, outpacing Council expectations, Capone said. The program will be reinstated this semester within the next few weeks, she said.

This year the college’s weekend Philadelphia shuttle was canceled due to low ridership, and the college said it does not intend to reinstate it.

The proposed cutbacks to the SEPTA system come as ridership has been on the rise and the system has been praised for its efficiency and effective management. Regional rail in particular has become popular in recent years. Ridership reached an all-time high of over 36 million trips taken last year, a 50 percent increase from 15 years ago. In 2012, overall system ridership hit its highest number in 23 years at over 339 million trips taken.

The cutbacks would reduce that number by 40.7 million, SEPTA predicts.

A report released in April by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia found that if SEPTA goes ahead with major service cuts (specifically if it cuts 40 percent of its system), eventually Philadelphia would lose close to 60,000 jobs and $14 billion (14 percent) of its property value, and the suburbs would lose 25,000 jobs and $8 billion of their property values, as a result.

The Media/Elwyn line serves roughly 10,000 riders daily, above average for the system. Previously SEPTA had planned to extend the line by roughly three miles to Wawa, PA, but that plan is on hold until more pressing maintenance projects are completed.

In the cutback plan, SEPTA outlined over $300 million worth of those projects. Included in that is $60 million to replace the Crum Creek viaduct, which carries trains past Swarthmore through the Crum Woods. Busch said that the viaduct, which was built in 1895, is a “poster child of the types of things we’re talking about with this plan.” It has been in need of replacement for years, he said.

In total, SEPTA is asking for $6.5 billion over 10 years from the state. Without additional funding, SEPTA’s budget for capital projects for fiscal year 2014 will be $308 million, its lowest level since 1997 and generally less than one third of that of peer transit agencies in Washington, New Jersey, Chicago and Boston.

SEPTA, like all major U.S. public transportation systems, recovers only a fraction of its operating costs from fare revenues. SEPTA’s farebox recovery rates for its various services are similar to those of peer agencies. But it must look elsewhere for capital funding.

Republican Governor Tom Corbett has said that providing additional transportation funding is one of his top priorities. In June, the state Senate passed a $2.5 billion transportation bill 45-5 with support from both parties. The bill would be funded with increased fees and oil-franchise taxes. Of the total, about $400 million per year would go to SEPTA. Though that would amount to less than the $6.5 billion SEPTA is requesting, Busch said SEPTA believes it would be able to keep the system running if that money does materialize.

Gov. Corbett has said he will sign the bill if it passes the state House, but it is not clear that will happen. At the request of Gov. Corbett, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R.-Allegheny) agreed last week to schedule a vote on the Senate bill, but he said he still opposes the bill, and House Speaker Sam Smith said yesterday that the passage of any transportation bill would be contingent on concessions from unions.

Area lawmakers have been lobbying heavily to avert SEPTA’s proposed cuts.

Some observers of the process have suggested that SEPTA’s presentation of the “doomsday” plan is at least in part a political move to push the state legislature into taking action. SEPTA officials maintain that none of the proposed cuts are exaggerated.

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