UPDATE 8/30/23: SEPTA & City Budgets Net Wins for Transit

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The Transit Forward Philadelphia coalition organized to win low-income fares, free transfers, steps toward fare-capping, more money for accessibility improvements, and reconsideration of transit money on parking. When we show up with a unified voice, we win big!

Rendering of a red, white, and blue SEPTA trolley car at a station with rumble strips and people of all backgrounds entering a car via accessible doors, along a public street

In June, the City of Philadelphia and SEPTA each passed their FY2024 budgets, delivering on years of transit activism with crucial steps toward equitable fares, accessible infrastructure, and investments in rider growth. With a new incoming mayoral administration and major council turnover, alongside SEPTA's looming operations budget cliff, these wins give advocates a major leg up to future organizing on fares, service, and supporting regional growth.

The Transit Forward Philadelphia coalition gathered 14 testimonies for the virtual city budget process; for SEPTA, we organized 31 written and in-person comments on the Operating budget, and 25 written and in-person comments on the Capital budget. Based on our data, TFP's priorities were represented in the vast majority of public comments for all three processes.

After years of collective advocacy, Mayor Kenney's outgoing budget proposal represented a clear break in how transit is supported by local government. The passed budget included money to enroll all city employees in the popular SEPTA Key Advantage program, and the establishment of our region's first-ever free, low-income fare program, putting Philadelphia in alignment with cities as diverse as Seattle, New York, Honolulu, and Minneapolis-St Paul. Both of these priorities have been part of Transit Forward Philadelphia's advocacy since our founding in 2020.

As it currently stands, the low-income fare program will only offer the benefit to those making the federal poverty line - those working 40 hours per week at the commonwealth's $7.25/hour minimum wage wouldn't qualify. But with continued activism, we now have a framework to expand in years to come to make it easier for the 30% of Philadelphia households without access to cars to reach community, culture, medical care, and jobs.

UPDATE: As of September 1, 22,000 full-time, part-time, and provisional City of Philadelphia employees are eligible for SEPTA Key Advantage, bringing the total number of employees in the region able to use this program to 55,000. And by August 28, over 10,000 city staff had already signed up for the program with no major reported glitches or errors - a remarkable uptake that mirrors what happened with employers part of the pilot program beginning in 2021. 

Simultaneously, notification letters have been going out to those eligible for the low-income zero-fare program in batches of 1,000, eliminating much of the self-identification which slows down and dulls the impact of many offerings purporting to aid those in poverty.

A White man and a Black man, both in hats and surgical masks, talk to one another at a SEPTA transit center, with stairs to a train station in the background

On the SEPTA side, each year the transit agency passes two budgets based on separation sourcing: one each for Operating and Capital. The former focuses on the daily mechanics of running the system, including service frequency, operator pay, and fare structure. The latter relates to any construction on the system like track improvements, station accessibility, new and repaired cars, and much to our chagrin, parking structures at stations. 

This year's Operating budget delivered key wins on long-held priorities, adding a second free transfer for SEPTA Key card users within two hours, and adding all Airport Line and Zone 1 Regional Rail stations into the TransPass fare structure. These changes lessen the penalization of the suburban poor.

From here, we're advocating for unlimited transfers within two hours, and a movement toward fare-capping, which would set a maximum daily fare for riders regardless of "legs" of a trip - something already being implemented on the Los Angeles Metro. And we absolutely must end the cash transfer penalty which forces cash users pay a new fare each time they board, and match all in-city Regional Rail stations to local transit fares to make the most of our existing rail, trolley, and bus infrastructure.

On the Capital side, the pause of the King of Prussia Rail project kickstarted this year's budget process in the public eye, and gave us tens of millions of new dollars to fund more in-demand public transit priorities. Trolley Modernization and accessibility each received the most direct additional funding, with both on-track to be fully implemented within this 12-year capital budget cycle. 

In the initial budget proposal, SEPTA wished to spend $48 million for the construction of a new parking garage at the Conshohocken Regional Rail station. Currently, this station has only 450 daily riders, and no available evidence of demand for more parking. Our activism removed this line-item from the passed budget and SEPTA's Board has hit "pause" on the project, currently discussing with PennDOT and the borough of Conshohocken about constraints on state and federal money for the project while developing alternate site plans for mixed-use development.

Color photo of a SEPTA Norristown High Speed Line car at an elevated station with a Citizens Bank commercial building in the background

We're fighting for a future where a transit agency doesn't spend its vital capital dollars on parking; instead, it spends on accessibility, maintenance and expansion, and development projects that feed the multimodal passengers that will use its system. In operations, we're making strides toward more just fare structure through more transfers, and travel with no visible costs for low-income riders and through employers. This is how we increase ridership outside of outdated assumptions around commutes. Bringing people into the office a magic number of days per week won't save transit - it's making an all-day network for trips to cultural events in the core, outdoor activities and family in the suburbs, and grocery stores across the neighborhood.

Taken together, these wins for the SEPTA and city budgets show how an engaged, dedicated movement can show what transit needs to succeed. With the state budget currently on hold and a new mayor and council arriving in January, we're ready to continue the fight for infrastructure and service that is robustly and reliably funded, and responsive to its riders.

Join us today, and help win the public transit we deserve!