SEPTA board approves fare hike, service cuts
By: ALISON HAWKES (Fri, Dec/17/2004)

PHILADELPHIA— An outraged crowd drowned the room with cries of “Just say no!” and “We won’t pay,” vowing a Civil Rights-era protest. Philadelphia’s mayor arrived to threaten a lawsuit. A silent man using a wheelchair tapped a button with his foot, setting off a piercing siren.
But nothing stopped the SEPTA board on Thursday from approving a massive fare hike and service cut for the new year, making it the most expensive public transit agency in the nation.

In a 13-to-2 vote — with the Philadelphia representatives dissenting — the SEPTA board approved a 38 percent fare hike and a 20 percent cut to weekday and Saturday service. Sunday service will remain as is. On Jan. 23, the service cuts and an initial 25 percent fare hike will take effect. On March 1, a second 13 percent fare hike will be implemented, according to the plan.

At agency headquarters in Center City, SEPTA board members said there was nothing else they could do, given that the governor and Harrisburg lawmakers have so far failed to help patch a $62 million shortfall. They called it their “fiduciary responsibility” to balance the budget by the end of the year or risk getting sued.

But the room full of angry riders pleaded for another option. Wait, they said. Give the governor more time. That same day, Gov. Ed Rendell’s staff met with federal highway officials in Washington to get clarification on how to transfer federal highway funds to cover $190 million in deficits for the state’s 41-ailing public transit systems. They came back with more questions than answers, according to Rendell’s chief of staff, but still intend to find a solution.

“Do the right thing. Just say no. You don’t have to go forward with this horrible vote,” said Cheri Honkala of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, who brought along a group of children holding signs that read “Welfare to work. My mom can’t get to work.”

“I urge you to have the courage of your convictions,” said Lance Haver, director of Mayor John Street’s Office of Consumer Affairs, proposing that SEPTA take out a loan or sell its headquarters to fund the budget. “Can anyone in this room imagine Rosa Parks saying she decided not to sit because a lawyer told her she might get sued?”

After sitting quietly through over an hour of complaints, the House minority leader appointee to the SEPTA board, Herman Wooden, retorted: “The fight is in Harrisburg, not in this board room. A lot of you weren’t there when we needed you.”

Over shouts of objections, he then conceded, “A lot of you were.”

The lone supporting voice from the crowd was Tom Dorricott, a state legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, who said that passing the cuts and fare hikes would show Harrisburg that SEPTA is fiscally responsible.

“BLET urges the entire board to put the survival of SEPTA ahead of parochial political interests,” Dorricott said, in an apparent jab at Philadelphia’s two SEPTA representatives.

Two weeks ago, Philadelphia’s Jettie Newkirk and Christian DiCicco vetoed the measure, temporarily killing it. But the authority’s bylaws allowed it to pass this time on a second vote, with a two-thirds majority.

On the other side of the state, Pittsburgh’s Port Authority of Allegheny County passed similarly draconian measures, voting to boost fares by 43 percent and cut service 27 percent to address a $30 million budget gap. Pittsburgh’s changes are scheduled to take affect Feb.1.

That’s shortly after Harrisburg lawmakers are set to reconvene on Jan. 24. Philadelphia’s state Rep. Babette Josephs, D-182, wondered aloud why SEPTA’s cuts begin on Jan. 23 – just one day before.

“We could address this. I think we should all be there,” Josephs said, urging the SEPTA board to wait on their vote to give lawmakers crack at it.

“Are we going to get out before Monday?” said SEPTA board Chairman Pat Deon Sr., a Bucks County representative, looking out over the restless crowd.

Philadelphia Mayor John Street also intervened, though some of the press, including the Courier Times, were unable to get into the room at the time because it had reached its 150-person capacity. Outside, a guard fought to keep the door to the boardroom closed as one protester yanked the handle and yelled, “We want in. Arrest me.”

After the meeting, Philadelphia City solicitor Pedro Ramos said the city will be seeking an emergency court injunction to the decision because the SEPTA board did not follow proper procedures.

“The first words out of the SEPTA board chairman’s mouth today was, ‘The board did not want to do this and it’s not in the best interests of SEPTA,’ ” Ramos said. “You can’t pick and choose your public duty. They have chosen to begin dismantling SEPTA.”

No public hearings were held on the measure before it passed, nor was a detailed outline made publicly available, said Haver. SEPTA officials did hold public hearings on a prior proposal, which included many of the same elements of the measure that passed, including a 20 percent weekday service cut and a 25 percent fare hike. At a previous board meeting, officials said they would hold additional public meetings on the new elements of this measure before they take effect.


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