The transit system in Philadelphia isn’t quite as multifaceted as the city it serves, but it's got layers to it nonetheless. Let’s peel some of those layers back and ask two foundational questions of our transit system: how does transportation relate to climate justice? And how is our transit system structured?

Transportation and Climate

Energy is the fuel that powers our transit system, as we’ve established in our blog post on Energy, Electricity, and the Climate Crisis. Sadly, we’ve also established that most of the energy we use is generated from fossil fuels. As a result, transportation accounts for 22% of Philadelphia’s Greenhouse Gas emissions, much of which comes from our car-related emissions due to a lack of funding for SEPTA (which we’ll touch on momentarily). 

(Philadelphia Climate Action Playbook, pg. 13)

This reliance on cars both exacerbates climate change and creates harmful air pollution, as Philadelphia ranks as the 12th most polluted city in the country. Personal automobiles, here, are a big part of the problem. In 2009, cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and freight trucks accounted for 77% of all transportation GHGs. Contrastingly, public transit emits much less pollution per passenger mile, especially when ridership is high, as shown below.

(Public Transportation’s Role in Responding to Climate Change, 2010)

Bold climate action requires deeper investments in public transit. Sadly, public transit is drastically underfunded across the country, and Philadelphia is no exception. To change that, though, we’ll need to understand how our transit system is structured. So let’s get to it!


Our Transit System: SEPTA

First, let’s talk about SEPTA or the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. SEPTA is a metropolitan transportation agency that oversees public transit in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery. In Philadelphia, SEPTA offers bus, subway, regional rail, and trolley services across the city.

SEPTA is a regional authority, not a City agency. So, each of the five counties in SEPTA has equal representation on SEPTA’s board. Still, most of the transit agency’s ridership, usually 80% or more, comes from Philadelphia. This means that, because the rest of the counties in SEPTA are less populous than Philadelphia but each receives the same number of votes, the transit agency disproportionately represents the interests of less-densely populated, suburban residents.


Pennsylvania’s Contribution to Transit System: SEPTA

How does our state government impact our transit system? Well, this is where the thick of it lies. Most of SEPTA’s funding comes from the PA State Government. As a result, the transit agency has not had a steady, dedicated funding source for most of its history. 


(SEPTA 2019 Operating Budget Subsidies)

When it comes to government funding mechanisms, there are two kinds of budgets. Firstly, there are operating budgets. These budgets include buses, employee wages, ongoing maintenance costs, etc. It’s helpful thinking of operational budgets to be for short-term expenditures. Secondly, there are capital budgets, which include projects like rebuilding train stations, constructing new electrical systems, or building a bridge. These are the more long-term infrastructure investments.

In 2019, state funds accounted for almost 80% of SEPTA’s operating budget and almost 50% of SEPTA’s capital budget. Much of the state’s funding to SEPTA comes from Act 89 in 2013 which allows the Pennsylvania Department of Transit (PennDOT) a $450 million infusion to public transit agencies. However, Act 89 is set to expire in 2022, meaning a big chunk of SEPTA’s funding source could dry up as soon as 2022.

(SEPTA 2019 Capital Budget Subsidies)

This arrangement is unusual for American transit agencies. Most other agencies receive larger support from their local governments, especially in west coast cities where revenues are raised directly from sales taxes. These local funding streams also make localities more responsive to ridership needs. Nevertheless, if the state funding dissolves, SEPTA will need to find alternative sources of funding from local or federal governments.


The Federal Government’s Role in Our Transit System

What role does the federal government play in all of this? I’m glad you asked! The federal government sends funds to local and regional transit agencies across the country, like SEPTA, which are tasked with managing transportation systems in a particular area. However, ever since the Reagan era and the 1980s, the federal government has steadily decreased subsidies for transit agencies’ operating budgets. For instance, federal funds accounted for 11.4% of SEPTA’s operating budget in 2019, as shown above.

When transit agencies need additional capital funds, they can apply for competitive grant programs through the Federal Transit Administration. SEPTA has not submitted a major capital grant for some time but is trying to do so to modernize our trolly system

The federal government’s distant role in our transit system is unusual for wealthy nations. In 2019, the United States invested 0.6% of its GDP into inland infrastructure investments, while France and the United Kingdom each invested 0.9% of their GDP in the same year. Clearly, the federal government needs to deepen its investments in public transit agencies like SEPTA.


Transportation and Climate Change: Conclusion

In summary, the federal government has disinvested from transit agencies like SEPTA, and some state governments, like Pennsylvania, have not played their part either. Finally, SEPTA itself is designed to cater to the needs of suburban areas more than the city. Fighting climate change will require changes to all of the above, creating a cleaner, better-funded public transit system in Philadelphia and beyond. What might this look like? Who could it work for? Stay tuned for our next blog post Transit Equity in Philadelphia to find out!