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Dem Officials Announce $317 Million in New SEPTA Spending

State, federal, and local Democratic officials were on hand Wednesday to tout a $317.1 million grant to Southern Pennsylvania Transportation Agency (SEPTA) for new train cars on the Market-Frankford Line.

Upper Darby Mayor Ed Brown said his town has more than 85,000 people who speak more than 100 languages. Residents and visitors use the Market Frankfort line, the “most heavily traveled line in the SEPTA system.”

“The Market Frankfort line, the backbone of the SEPTA system, makes the 69th Street Transportation Center a true gateway to the entire region,” said Brown. “A stronger SEPTA is a stronger Upper Darby.”

Federal Transit Administration Administrator Nuria Fernandez said they would announce similar grants for vehicle replacements in Baltimore and Chicago on Wednesday, totaling $631 million, all funded by the 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Law.

She said modernizing public transit helps communities become more “equitable and sustainable.” The Market-Frankford Line is 13 miles from Upper Darby to the Frankford section of Philadelphia and connects passengers with other regional lines. And people who don’t have cars can get where they need to go, she said.

Leslie Richards, SEPTA general manager, said the current railcars are about 25 years old and sorely need replacing. The grant is “the largest single grant that SEPTA has ever received,” said Richards. She thanked the congressional delegation for bringing the money home to SEPTA, as well as state representatives and senators.

“The Market-Frankford line serves the region’s largest employment centers,” said Richards. “Center City and University City… It’s 28 stations connect to every mode of SEPTA service.”

“It’s an engine of opportunity and a lifeline for the tens of thousands of people who rely on it every single day,” said Richards. The current railcars are at the end of their useful life, and constant maintenance limits how many can run.

“Replacing these railcars is our highest priority.” They plan to award a contract this summer for 200 new railcars. She also praised the workers working around the clock to maintain the current railcars. SEPTA has to follow federal Buy America provisions with this rail car purchase.

Richards presented Fernandez, who will retire Friday after 45 years, with a colorful picture of SEPTA trains.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said he’d driven from the Pittsburgh area to be at the event. “It’s a big deal for SEPTA. It’s a big deal for this region. It’s a big deal for anyone who uses this kind of rail to go to work, to go to school, or to visit.”

He called Biden “the grandfather of infrastructure in America.”

While the other officials painted a rosy picture of what the new rail cars would mean, Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker had a more realistic take on the transit agency’s situation.

“Sen. John Fetterman got it right. This is a super big deal for our region,” said Parker. “And particularly for the people who have been yearning to see their tax dollars at work in their neighborhoods.”

She praised Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for being “forward-thinking” and knowing that mass transit systems like SEPTA “are the nucleus of our regional economy.”

The riders “deserve to be on a safe and clean mass transit system,” said Parker. “And this will make it a reality…This is what intergovernmental cooperation looks like.”

But while the new rail cars may be an improvement, the jury is out on whether more people will once again take SEPTA. SEPTA ridership remains below pre-pandemic levels.

“We have to make tough decisions to make sure this system is safe and clean,” said Parker. “If we get the new railcars, hear me. If we get the new railcars and people are still afraid to ride, it’s been for nothing. So we’ve got to make the tough decisions to ensure this investment is put to good use.”

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) praised President Joe Biden for spearheading the infrastructure bill, which included $91.2 billion for transportation. She noted the current cars are prone to mechanical failure, causing delays. “SEPTA commuters deserve better.”

The new railcars “will be a game-changer” to improve service and make SEPTA more sustainable. There have been decades of underinvestment, she said, leading to crumbling roads, bridges, ports, and airports.

Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia) said the area congressional delegation had worked together to secure the grant. He praised the SEPTA workers.

“It is that type of teamwork (and this) is the result,” said Evans. “This is a great moment for all of us.” He praised Biden and the state’s two senators.

Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Mike Carroll thanked “our federal partners.” The “entire southeast region” is benefiting from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Law,” he said, including PennDOT and the Port of Philadelphia.

Delaware County Council Chair Monica Taylor said the 69th Street Center and Market-Frankford line is a “true transit gateway for all of Delaware County. She thanked everyone involved in securing the railcar investment.

The elected officials on hand declined to take questions from reporters after their lengthy press conference. They also didn’t address how this new infusion of federal spending would drive the cost per rider on SEPTA even higher, as the transit system continues to struggle with fewer riders and higher costs than before the pandemic.

DVJounal asked Scanlon to comment about her support for continued federal spending in the wake of the massive spike in inflation that began soon after the Biden-era spending began. Inflation broke the nine percent mark in 2022, and it continues to remain stubbornly high.

Scanlon disagreed with that premise and blamed the inflation on “the pandemic, the disruption of supply chains, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

The U.S. monthly inflation rate was 7.5 percent in January 2022, a month before Russia invaded Ukraine.

“The reason we need this government spending is we have not had infrastructure upgrades in decades,” said Scanlon. “It costs our businesses money when they can’t get their products to market. They can’t get their employees to work, so there are business costs when we don’t maintain our infrastructure, whether it’s highways, bridges, or rail lines. So, it’s a long overdue investment. There is a reason it was bipartisan. This is something the country has been asking for some time, and Biden made it happen.”

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