Posted on Sun, Nov. 07, 2004

Seeing no state aid, SEPTA is bracing for 1,400 layoffs

By Jere Downs
Inquirer Staff Writer

With no action apparent in Harrisburg to pump needed money into SEPTA this year, the transit agency's general manager, Faye Moore, said Friday that she was preparing layoff notices for 1,400 employees.

Without state aid to close a $62 million budget gap, SEPTA says, it will be forced to shed one-sixth of its 9,000-person staff, end weekend service, and raise fares on Jan 1.

"As people play chicken and poker in Harrisburg, we are continuing to play with people's lives," Moore said in an interview in Valley Forge. She spoke after a forum on Pennsylvania's need for transportation funding.

The state's response to SEPTA's request could emerge soon. Lawmakers return to Harrisburg Monday for a lame-duck session expected to last up to three weeks. However, neither the governor nor legislative leaders were offering any remedies Friday.

As SEPTA conducted public hearings last month on its threatened cuts and fare hikes, Gov. Rendell said he would lead a fight for transit funding after the election. He also said he would not raise spending without a tax increase.

"The governor believes that a solution is necessary and possible," Rendell spokesman Kate Philips said Friday. "But the solution has not yet been created."

As for members of the Republican leadership, they said transit funding was not on their agenda. "Honestly, it is not," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Samuel H. Smith (R., Jefferson). "We're not ignorant. There is a feeling... SEPTA creates these budgets to create a crisis."

However, Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Philadelphia) predicted Friday that dependable funding for transit would be secured by the time lawmakers adjourn for the year before Thanksgiving.

"We must fix this problem. It's connected to the economy, the hospitality industry, everything," said Evans, the minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "Forget the turkey. Nobody gets stuffing until it gets fixed."

By state law, transit agencies use riders' fares to pay half their operating costs and rely on state subsidies for the rest.

For SEPTA, only about 14 percent of those subsidies comes from a reliable source that can be counted on to grow with inflation, according to a Brookings Institution report released in June. In that respect, SEPTA lags at the bottom of a list of transit agencies. Others, such as those serving Boston and Dallas, receive more than half their subsidies from dedicated state sources.

SEPTA's current funding crisis has been slow but sure in coming. For the six years preceding the current state budget, for example, Pennsylvania transit agencies largely received flat or declining state aid.

"It is like living on a fixed income," Moore said Friday.

Now, SEPTA managers are drawing up plans to downsize, Moore said. It is a massive effort, she added, including selecting workers and combing through union pacts and federal and state rules to determine who can be laid off and when.

If SEPTA begins layoffs, managers must go first, said Jeff Brooks, the newly elected president of the 5,000 members of Transport Workers Union Local 234. Bus and subway operators, mechanics, cashiers and others are protected, Brooks said recently, because their contract has a no-layoff provision after one year on the job.

Contact staff writer Jere Downs at 610-313-8128 or jdowns@phillynews.com.


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