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Shapiro Rides Suburban Rails to Promote More SEPTA Spending

Gov. Josh Shapiro brought his budget-promoting roadshow to the Delaware Valley Thursday, talking up increased spending on mass transit. What he didn’t discuss is the growing gap between rising costs and declining ridership.

The Democratic governor has been going around the state drumming up support for his $48.3 billion proposed 2024-25 budget.

On Thursday, Shapiro jumped on the SEPTA train at Rydal Station in Abington and rode to Langhorne Station in Bucks County to focus attention on his call for $282.8 million in additional spending on public transit. He was joined by PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll, SEPTA CEO Leslie Richards, and Transit Police Chief Charles Lawson, along with local legislators.

Shapiro argues millions of state residents take public transit to work, school, or travel. He says public transit availability also helps employers recruit workers, connect with clients, and makes the state economically competitive.

Shapiro’s budget would increase the state share of public transit funding by 1.75 percent, adding up to nearly $1.5 billion in new taxpayer dollars over five years.

Critics believe SEPTA already gets its fair share of state funding.

“Gov. Shapiro is proposing a mass transit bailout forcing taxpayers across the state to further subsidize a transportation system they will never use. Polling shows only 35 percent of voters support the bailout. And Pennsylvania drivers already send more than $600 million to mass transit systems,” said Elizabeth Stelle, director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation.

“Funneling more funds from Harrisburg to SEPTA won’t save the system that’s seen a rapid decline in ridership. It’s time for SEPTA to find cost savings and increase its reliance on fares—not state taxpayers,” Stelle said.

A Commonwealth Foundation analysis found SEPTA and Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) have lost riders since 2019. SEPTA lost 39 percent of its riders, and PRT lost 32 percent. The Norristown High Speed Line lost 50 percent of its passengers.

In October 2023, average ridership was just 67 percent of the October 2019 number. On Regional Rail, ridership was just 56 percent of the pre-COVID average.

Former riders cite crime as a reason they no longer ride SEPTA. Since 2019, crime and quality of life violations on SEPTA vehicles and stations increased significantly. Robberies and aggravated assaults on SEPTA increased by more than 80 percent between 2019 and 2021 despite ridership decreasing by 50 percent during that time period.

Quality of life violations on SEPTA increased by 34 percent from 2019 to 2022. Certain offenses, such as littering, disorderly conduct, public urination, and smoking, increased by more than 200 percent from 2019 to 2022.

Shapiro addressed those concerns on Thursday.

“My budget includes an additional $161 million to help keep SEPTA clean and safe, and if the General Assembly passes it, SEPTA will be able to fund 40 more police officers, 30 more safety personnel, and 100 more cleaners without cutting service or raising fares. This is a commonsense investment that will help provide real freedom and opportunity for more than 700,000 Pennsylvanians who use SEPTA every day,” Shapiro said.

He argues that public transit is critical in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where it serves the five-county area. In addition to SEPTA, the governor’s proposal would fund 31 other public transit systems across the state.

Ahead of his budget address in February, the governor and his administration worked closely with SEPTA to assess its needs and develop a plan to address riders’ concerns about cleanliness and safety on the system. Richards thanked Shapiro for his “historic investment” into public transportation.

However, in 2017, SEPTA invested in new double-decker train cars from a Chinese company, spending more than $50 million. The Inquirer reported that the transit agency canceled the order in April over “shoddy work.” The transit agency said it would try to recover that money.

Richards and Shapiro, both Democrats, served as Montgomery County commissioners, elected together in 2011.

In April, SEPTA proposed a $2.6 billion total budget for Fiscal Year 2025 that includes twice the funding for safety and cleanliness programs, including a total of $72 million to fund 40 more police officers, 30 more safety professionals, and 100 more cleaners.

Despite lower ridership, SEPTA’s operating budget has increased by 9.3 percent since 2019. The agency reports a $240 million budget shortfall and has threatened 30 percent fare increases and 20 percent service cuts to offset the shortfall.

“When it comes to spending more money on SEPTA, I will echo the words of [Philadelphia] Mayor Parker: ‘People will not return to SEPTA if they don’t feel safe,’” said House Republican Appropriations Chairman Seth Grove (R-York). “Ridership has dropped 39 percent from 2018-2019 levels.  Before approving more state money to a public transit system that hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, we need to see a comprehensive plan to reform the system.”

But DelVal legislators in both parties praised Shapiro’s visit.

“I appreciate the opportunity of having Gov. Shapiro in our district to discuss the important issue of transit funding,” said Sen. Frank Farry (R-Bucks). “Transit plays an important role in the 6th Senatorial District for our citizens, students, and workforce. I look forward to continuing the discussion on adequate funding for our transit agencies.”

“SEPTA is an important part of the Philadelphia area’s transportation infrastructure,” said Rep. Joe Hogan (R-Penndel). “With headline events like the 2026 FIFA World Cup, America250, and the 2026 MLB All-Star game coming to Philadelphia, this investment is necessary to make sure SEPTA is prepared for the crowds that will come with them.”

“Folks who are struggling to make it across Pennsylvania told me that lack of transportation is a key barrier to getting ahead,” said Sen. Art Haywood (D-Montgomery). “Transportation equals pay. We cannot afford to delay Gov. Shapiro’s plan.” 

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SEPTA Crime Is More Than a Statistic for DelVal Commuters

While SEPTA passengers worry about crime on the public transit system, SEPTA employees face ongoing dangers.

Otis Barnes, who’s been a SEPTA bus driver for nearly three decades, has been assaulted by a violent passenger twice – first on June 19 and again on Nov. 30, 2023. Dangerous passengers have also attacked some of his coworkers.

“There was a detour that day in June, and this passenger didn’t like it,” Barnes said. “He was making terroristic threats. He spit on me and another co-worker who was there. It wasn’t the first time he caused problems on the route. He never pays the fare, by the way, which is common in these incidents. I told the Control Center I couldn’t pick him up anymore and that this person was an ongoing problem. After the spitting incident, (he) got physical.”

According to Barnes, the same passenger spat on Barnes again on Nov. 30 and ran off the vehicle.

“He ran off the bus, and I went after him,” said Barnes. “I threw some punches. He got back on the bus and got physical with a passenger, a father who had his child with him. This father overpowered him. To my knowledge, this man who harasses my passengers has never been arrested. He still tries to get on the bus but I won’t let him onboard. I see him at least once a week.

“I know co-workers who have been physically assaulted,” said Barnes. “One was punched in the face. Why? Because he was driving too slow. The second was punched for not stopping at a discontinued stop. I’ve been a driver for 29 years, and it hasn’t always been like this. It’s escalating. These violent passengers can say or do whatever they want because they know there are no serious consequences. Operators have always been threatened, but now it’s not just a threat.”

On Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, a passenger shot and killed bus operator Bernard Gribben, 48. He was shot six times in the chest and abdomen allegedly by Zhontay Capers, 21. Police charged Capers with murder and related offenses.

“I never thought something like that could happen,” said Barnes. “His death affected a lot of my co-workers. Some just break down and cry over it. You see, the threats aren’t just threats anymore. These violent passengers are saying, You can get what your colleague got’– meaning what happened to Bernard.

“Will this new law, Act 40, make a difference? I think so, especially if it’s advertised on vehicles and station stops,” he added. “People have to know there are serious consequences for their actions, and right now, many of them don’t think that there are.”

In December 2023, Gov. Josh Shapiro signed Act 40 into law. The bipartisan legislation is meant to address what some lawmakers see as District Attorney Larry Krasner’s “systemic record of failing to prosecute assaults on victims.” The law would divert prosecution of some criminal cases on SEPTA vehicles, and transit stops to a special prosecutor. However, so far, Attorney General Michelle Henry has not appointed a special prosecutor, and Krasner opposes the new law.

“This dereliction of duty has cast a negative light on Philadelphia and the commonwealth, which has significantly impacted safety and ridership,” said state Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Cambria) when the Senate approved the bill. “The working families, students, and visitors of Philadelphia are in dire need of prosecutorial solutions, and my legislation will help restore law and order on SEPTA’s buses, trolleys, trains, and stations.”

On January 11, Krasner filed a lawsuit against the state attorney general to block implementation of the law, calling it “an unprecedented assault on a locally elected official’s authority and the rights of voters” in an official statement.  

Yet in all of the abuse by Krasner and supporters on Act 40, there was not one mention of those victimized by violent crime while riding or waiting for buses, trolleys, or trains.

It wasn’t until a March 4 shooting at the Route 22 bus stop where a 17-year-old was killed and four people were wounded, including two other teens, that Krasner finally said anything about the victims. Instead, when interviewed by Lauren Mayk on NBC10’s Battleground Politics, he repeatedly referred to it as the erasure of votes and a war on democracy. He repeatedly tried to make it a racial issue. 

However, a recent string of deadly incidents of SEPTA riders, many of them juveniles, is spurring city leaders to take much-needed action. But will this result in aggressive policies and prosecution against violent criminals?

“Krasner’s argument that the new law is disenfranchising voters and trying to circumvent his authority is specious at best,” said former Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams. “The focus should be on the victims of violent crime. The lawmakers in Harrisburg are trying to get around a district attorney who is not prosecuting,” Williams said. “Someone has to stand up for the victims. Members of the General Assembly are trying to ensure riders and employees are safe. It is the certainty of accountability that deters criminals.”

In an interview with Mayk, Shapiro said the new law doesn’t strip Krasner of prosecutorial powers or disenfranchise Philadelphia voters.

“It’s concurrent jurisdiction, something that already exists. We are not taking away power. We are adding law enforcement resources,” said Shapiro.

The recent violence includes a  Feb. 26 attack on a man by a violent criminal known to law enforcement on the 8th and Market Street subway platforms. The perpetrator, now under arrest again, was out on bail for attempted murder.

On March 6, eight juveniles were wounded by gunfire at the Rising Sun and Cottman Avenues bus stop. One victim, a 16-year-old boy, was shot nine times. The next day, a 37-year-old man was shot and killed on the Route 79 bus.

For men have been arrested for the March 6 shooting. An arrest was also made in the March 7 shooting that took the life of a 17-year-old. Investigators say the two shootings might be connected.

Former assistant district attorney Carlos Vega said Act 40 critics ignore the fact that a Democratic governor signed the new law.

“Krasner and the rest of them can say what they want about it being an attack on democracy. But the fact that the bill passed with bipartisan support is a clear example of democracy at work,” he said. “It was debated in Harrisburg. There were hearings. Republicans, as well as Democrats, voted for it. Act 40 was a bipartisan push that a democratic governor signed off on. Violent crime is skyrocketing because of Krasner. SEPTA riders don’t have the option of working from home. This law is an additional safeguard for prosecuting violent criminals and protecting riders and SEPTA employees. It’s a deterrence. Krasner is in his second term. He sees the statistics; he knows what’s happening. But he doesn’t care.”

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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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BELIVEAU: Biden’s Electric Bus to Nowhere

Pennsylvania lore talks of the fabled bus to nowhere—a mythical vehicle that provides rides to lost souls. And, by the looks of it, President Joe Biden appears to be driving this legendary vehicle.

To address climate change, “Scranton Joe” wants to swap the ubiquitous yellow school bus for something greener.

As part of a broader $5 billion grant competition under its Clean School Bus Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced its $47.3 million plan to help Pennsylvania school districts transition to electrical vehicles (EVs). The School District of Philadelphia will receive $7.9 million to purchase 20 “clean” school buses. Three southwestern Pennsylvania school districts, including Pittsburgh Public Schools, will receive 75 new buses.

“Thanks to President Biden’s historic investments in America,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in the January press release, “thousands more school buses will hit the road in school districts across the country, saving school districts money and improving air quality at the same time.”

But before fully converting to EVs, Pennsylvania school districts may want to seek a second opinion from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). For the commonwealth’s largest transit agency, EVs paint a hard-knock, costly lesson of “buyer beware.”

SEPTA once had the third-largest EV fleet. Today, the agency’s $24 million fleet of 25 electric buses collects dust. In 2020, SEPTA reported significant problems after finding cracked frames on its electric buses, forcing the agency to sideline its entire fleet. While parked at a SEPTA depot, one bus even burst into flames.

SEPTA purchased this dysfunctional fleet from Proterra, the nation’s largest electric bus manufacturer. In 2016, the company provided literal free rides to SEPTA executives during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, just months before purchasing its sizable fleet of now-defunct EVs.

Proterra filed for bankruptcy in 2023, meaning SEPTA and countless other shorted agencies that converted to electric buses have zero chance of a refund on their faulty buses.

SEPTA isn’t the only agency experiencing problems with EVs. Similar accounts of faulty electric buses—and their myriad of mechanical and electrical shortcomings—are coming out of North CarolinaColoradoCaliforniaTexasMichigan, and Kentucky.

The market is quickly turning against EVs.

Federal dollars might be the only thing keeping electrical buses afloat. Electric buses cost more to purchase and maintain than regular diesel buses. Furthermore, these already-pricey buses also require costly equipment and infrastructure to keep them charged and road-ready. Taxpayers will have to pick up the burden of paying for unreliable buses in the name of alarmist climate action.

This bus initiative is not the administration’s only misplaced policy proposal affecting Pennsylvania. Biden’s recent ban on exporting liquified natural gas (LNG) also negatively impacts the Keystone State and its energy-rich markets.

Even U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman—loyal, party-line Pennsylvania Democrats—are pushing back on Biden’s misguided LNG ban.

“While the immediate impacts on Pennsylvania remain to be seen, we have concerns about the long-term impacts that this pause will have on the thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry,” Casey and Fetterman said. “If this decision puts Pennsylvania energy jobs at risk, we will push the Biden Administration to reverse this decision.”

Biden’s “green” crusade prioritizes extreme environmental activists and renewable-energy lobbyists over the needs and concerns of everyday Pennsylvanians.

Big-government policies coercively forcing EVs and renewables are not the silver bullet for climate action. The market can reduce carbon emissions and respond better when government policy prioritizes reliability and fiscal responsibility rather than picking industry winners and losers.

Instead of pushing EVs and banning affordable energy production, the Biden administration should focus on reducing the regulatory burdens inhibiting technologies that will positively impact our natural environment without jeopardizing our economic environment, such as carbon-capture technology and small module nuclear facilities.

Additionally, removing the pipeline permitting nightmares preventing Pennsylvania from unleashing its energy into the national and international marketplace should be a higher priority than unreliable “green” technologies.

Considering the importance of the Keystone State to his reelection campaign, Biden should tread carefully with Pennsylvanian voters. Otherwise, his reelection hopes might join him on that elusive ride to nowhere.

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Ridership Sags, Costs Soar, but Shapiro Still Wants More Money for SEPTA

Despite exploding costs and plunging ridership, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) appears in line for another infusion of nearly $300 million in taxpayer cash.

Earlier this week, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro vowed to increase public transportation funding by $282.8 million.

“Ever since I was a state representative and county commissioner in Montgomery County, I have supported SEPTA and the critical services it offers to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians every day,” the governor said. “SEPTA has presented plans to address safety and cleanliness throughout their system, and county officials have entertained a willingness to step up to the plate and increase their support. As a result, my administration is prepared to make a major investment in SEPTA.”

It’s yet to be determined how much local funding, if any, Delaware Valley governments will kick in.

SEPTA CEO and General Manager Leslie S. Richards praised Shapiro’s decision. She said it would help SEPTA “address our more pressing needs and…continue [to serve] our communities.” Richards previously said SEPTA might cut services by 20 percent and raise fares by 30 percent. That would raise a Quick Trip Ticket from $2.50 to $3.25 and SEPTA Key and contactless payments from $2 to $2.60.

SEPTA funding and budget issues became a major focus for Democratic politicians after the transit agency revealed that it faced a looming fiscal cliff. It burned through $1.8 billion in federal COVID money between Fiscal Years 2020 and 2023 while generating just $1.18 billion in revenue.

That’s not counting the $2 billion in annual funding from Pennsylvania taxpayers, something independent auditors said was “the largest single source of subsidy revenue.”

An additional $295 million in taxpayer funding was not included in last year’s state budget.

And still ridership numbers continue to fall short of pre-COVID levels. In October 2023, average ridership was just 67 percent of the October 2019 number. On Regional Rail, ridership was just 56 percent of the pre-COVID average.

SEPTA’s cash crunch caused Democratic  U.S. Reps. Madelaine Dean, Chrissy Houlahan, and Mary Gay Scanlon to send a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last month asking for a bailout from federal taxpayers. Democratic Sens. Bob Casey Jr. and John Fetterman signed the letter, as did Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia). “Without strong, sustained federal support, Pennsylvanians risk losing transit access entirely,” the lawmakers wrote. “As the Department of Transportation continues its critical work, we urge you to prioritize SEPTA and Pennsylvania’s transit systems.”

Now, there’s a chance that SEPTA may get a partial state bailout, if not a federal one.

That’s music to the ears of Democrats representing Delaware Valley in Harrisburg.

“From the ‘burbs to the city, SEPTA connects us to jobs, doctors’ appointments, recreation, shopping, and so much more,” state Sen. Maria Collett (D-Montgomery) posted on social media after learning of the federal lawmakers’ letter. She expressed gratitude for their “fighting for more federal dollars to keep this critical system afloat.”

State Rep. Morgan Cephas (D-Philadelphia) hoped Shapiro would go further. She said SEPTA needed even more cash to make sure more seniors and workers take mass transportation. “SEPTA alone moves over half a million people every day to their jobs, families, school, medical appointments, and more…”

The reasons for the declining ridership vary. Numerous complaints from riders to the Better Business Bureau focus on late buses or trains. Others complained that drivers focused more on beating red lights instead of serving customers.

Crime remains a big problem for SEPTA as well. Statistics show the number of disorderly conduct and public urination and defecation cases since 2019 have increased far higher than ridership, from 213 to more than 1,300 in 2022.

Robberies jumped from 118 in 2019 to 217 in 2021, while aggravated assaults almost doubled from 46 to 86 in the same period.

That meant significant increases in SEPTA expenses. Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics show SEPTA spent $1.44 per passenger miles traveled on commuter rail in 2022 compared to 49 cents per passenger mile in 2013. For bus passengers, it was $2.66 in 2022 versus $1.09 in 2013. Streetcar rail was $2.87 in 2022 and only .94 cents in 2013.

Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-41) said SEPTA gets enough money.

“Supporting SEPTA’s request for increased state subsidy is a challenging argument to make, especially in light of Philadelphia District Attorney (Larry) Krasner’s inability to maintain law and order throughout America’s sixth largest city,” he said. “No amount of increased subsidy can restore customer confidence in making use of the network given the raging crime crisis Krasner perpetuates.”

The Commonwealth Foundation said the state government needs to take a new look at how it funds mass transit.

“Several years ago, state mass transit funding was moved offline into a special fund, taking a portion of sales tax revenue and Turnpike tolls to fund transit systems,” said Nathan Benefield, the Commonwealth Foundation’s senior vice president. “Unlike the General Fund, lawmakers don’t vote on this spending every single year.

“Should lawmakers examine how much state funding goes into those programs? We think they should.”

On Feb. 6, Josh Shapiro will hold his annual budget address.

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Krasner Tries to Block Law Giving Special Prosecutor SEPTA Crime Cases

Progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner filed a lawsuit hoping to block a bill giving some of his authority to a special prosecutor for SEPTA-related crime.

On his website, Krasner called Act 40 an “unprecedented assault on a locally elected official’s authority and on the rights of voters in the most populous and racially diverse county in the commonwealth.”

Supporters see it as an attempt to increase public safety by punishing criminals the Philly D.A. won’t.

“The Larry Krasner philosophy of non-prosecution is dangerous to law-abiding citizens and music to the ears of violent criminals,” said Rep. Craig  Williams (R-Chester/Delaware), who is also a GOP candidate for state attorney general. “As attorney general, I will get concurrent jurisdiction from the legislature to prosecute violent crime that Larry Krasner will not. We gave Josh Shapiro that jurisdiction (as attorney general) to prosecute in Philadelphia, and he chose to side with Krasner and not use that authority to prosecute. I will use it – aggressively.”

Krasner pushed back on the proposal by pointing out on his website that the legislation was “written by a Republican senator [Wayne Langerholc] whose district in Cambria, Centre, and Clearfield Counties is far closer geographically to Allegheny County than Philadelphia County, and who has baldly stated it intends to usurp the authority of the elected district attorney in Philadelphia County only. District Attorney Larry Krasner has been duly elected by Philadelphia voters twice – most recently in 2021 by a whopping 44 percent margin.”

“Meanwhile, the attorney general who is authorized to appoint a ‘special prosecutor’ for SEPTA – which in effect would cover nearly all of Philadelphia County – is a political appointee who was not chosen by voters.”

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Armstrong/Indiana) fired back.

“Ensuring public safety is paramount to upholding our constitutional obligation as elected officials. Larry Krasner’s video announcement this morning while shielding himself from questions from the public and press further demonstrates his weak and absent leadership,” said Pittman.

“Act 40 is strong legislation which received bipartisan support by the General Assembly, was signed into law by Democrat Governor Shapiro, and is supported by SEPTA,” Pittman said. “It is time D.A. Krasner stops playing political games and starts working with Republicans and Democrats alike to make sure America’s sixth largest city is safe.”

Another local senator whose constituents ride SEPTA, Sen. Tracy Penncuick (R-Montgomery/Berks), said, “As elected officials, our number one priority must always be the safety of the public. Those who rely upon SEPTA, including many residents of my district, should never have to fear for their safety when using their vital services. Act 40 is a bipartisan, good-faith effort, which was signed into law by Gov. Shapiro to make SEPTA a safer form of transportation for all riders.”

“I hope District Attorney Krasner will rethink his position on Act 40 and join the state Senate, state House, and Gov. Shapiro in supporting and implementing this important commonsense measure,” Pennycuick added.

Attorney General Michelle Henry said her office did not request the special prosecutor but is required by law to implement Act 40.

“It is not the duty of the attorney general to determine the wisdom of the policy underlying Act 40,” she said. “The Office of Attorney General also does not have the power to, on its own, declare the statute unconstitutional — that power rests solely with the judiciary.

“Unless and until a court of law declares Act 40 unconstitutional, the Office of Attorney General is required, pursuant to the Commonwealth’s Attorney Act, to carry out this legislative mandate. Act 40 does not permit any discretion on the part of our agency to appoint a special prosecutor — it compels it.

“Our office has worked hard to meet the mandate to appoint a special prosecutor, but given the narrow requirements set by the legislature, we have been unable to do so. We will respond to Mr. Krasner’s complaint as required by court rules,” Henry said.

Act 40 is just the latest salvo in the war between the state legislature and Krasner. In 2022, the House voted to impeach Krasner, claiming he had failed to enforce the laws in Philadelphia. The Senate did not try the case because it’s been tied up in the courts and is currently pending in the state Supreme Court.

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SEPTA Violence Inspires Farry, Tartaglione Bill Protecting Transit Workers

SEPTA bus driver Bernard Gribbin was shot and killed while driving on his route in the Germantown section of Philadelphia last month. Police charged a woman passenger with his murder.

A bill named for Gribbin, a U.S. Army veteran, sponsored by state Sens. Frank Farry (R-Bucks) and Christine Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia) that would make it a crime to interfere with a mass transit operator passed the Senate transportation committee unanimously this week. Senate Bill 977 would make it a felony of the third degree. If a person commits an aggravated assault against an operator, the penalty would be a felony of the first degree.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in threats and assaults against transit workers in Pennsylvania – especially Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) operators – including gun violence, physical assaults, and other disruptions.

“Our hope is this legislation will not only help safeguard our transit operators so they can safely do their job but protect passengers and other commuters on the roadway,” Farry said. “The bill is named after U.S. Army veteran Bernard Gribbin – a SEPTA bus operator who was murdered while working on Oct. 26. Operators deserve our protection.”

While the COVID-19 lockdowns are long over, John Golden, a spokesman for SEPTA, said the transit system is still feeling the impacts. SEPTA’s daily ridership is around 700,000 daily riders, or 70 percent of their pre-pandemic ridership.

However, despite Gribbin’s murder, crime on SEPTA vehicles has been going down.

“We are seeing progress in efforts to reduce criminal incidents, driven by efforts to hire new officers and adjust patrol strategies,” said Golden. For the quarter that ended Sept. 30, serious crimes were down 6 percent, serious violent crimes like robbery and aggravated assaults were down 31 percent, and criminal assaults on employees were down 62 percent.

Perhaps not coincidentally, arrests increased by 5 percent.

Also, “more customers are reporting incidents via the SEPTA Transit Watch App, which we have been encouraging. This is a great resource for customers to discretely communicate with SEPTA Transit Police about anything they see that is of concern.”

SETA officials expressed their gratitude for the legislation.

“SEPTA is grateful for the efforts of Sens. Farry and Tartaglione for leading this bipartisan effort to increase the penalties for those who assault bus and rail operators,” said SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale T. Deon Sr. “There is nothing more important than the safety and security of our employees and customers.”

Dismay as King of Prussia Rail on Hold Despite $1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Act

Community and business leaders are expressing dismay for the King of Prussia area as Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) this month blamed rising costs and inflation, as well as the Biden administration, for pausing the plan to extend a high-speed line to the Philadelphia suburb.

SEPTA said last week it would cease construction on the project for the time being due to a lack of funding. The cost of the four-mile extension from Norristown—called KOP Rail by developers— had risen to more than $3 billion.

Ryan Rosenbaum, executive director of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, told the Delaware Valley Journal: “The impact of not having the KOP Rail line will be felt in this area in the years to come.

“Here is why. This region is booming with hotels, retailers, restaurants, and a major casino. Many of the employees of these businesses live in other regions of the Greater Philadelphia area and find it difficult (from a transportation perspective) to come to King of Prussia to work.

“Many are without cars and rely heavily on SEPTA,” Rosenbaum continued. “The problem of finding quality employees to come here to work is an issue that’s been percolating here for a while. The suspension of this project can have ramifications in retaining quality employees, who spend a considerable time commuting to King of Prussia.

“The impact runs much deeper. This project could have been a gateway to reducing congestion on major highway arteries in this township. Workers could have depended on reliable train service, which would have reduced the carbon footprint in the region.

“This also has an adverse effect as the rail system could have been utilized by residents in Upper Merion who may have used the rail to go into the city to dine, see theater and or get to the airport,” Rosenbaum added.

Eric Goldstein, president and CEO of the King of Prussia Business District, is also disappointed—and concerned.

“This is a huge loss for this region, and the federal dollars that could have come here will now go to one of our national competitors,” Goldstein said in a statement.

“I am disappointed that we are not going to help the thousands of Philadelphia and Delaware County residents stuck on congestion-delayed buses trying to get to their jobs in King of Prussia in a timely fashion. My biggest regret is that they are now forced to continue riding buses with only a 66 percent on-time performance.

“I am disappointed that Upper Merion will not have a way to get thousands of cars off the roads as 60,000-plus employees and even more shoppers, diners, and visitors come here daily,” Goldstein added.

John Golden, a spokesman for SEPTA, said in a statement that the project “is not recommended for federal New Starts funding in Fiscal Year 2024, and SEPTA will use resources allocated for KOP Rail to bolster essential infrastructure work.”

A major factor preventing KOP Rail from advancing is the lack of flexibility in the transit agency’s capital budget.

Federal Transit Administration officials have expressed reservations about SEPTA’s ability to fund its project share, including any cost overruns. SEPTA’s capital budget is constrained compared to peer transit agencies that have more state and local funding.

“SEPTA’s capital budget has been underfunded for decades. This has left the Authority with significantly fewer resources than peer agencies to pursue system expansion while also addressing critical infrastructure needs,” said SEPTA General Manager and CEO Leslie Richards.

“With the funding we have currently, SEPTA must prioritize essential infrastructure work and safety and security improvements to maximize the reliability and effectiveness of our aging system.”

From August 2020 to August 2022, officials said the KOP Rail project estimate increased from $2.08 billion to $2.6 billion.

Congresswoman Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery), who voted for and praised the $1.2 trillion Biden administration Infrastructure Act, did not respond when DVJournal asked why funding for the King of Prussia Rail was not included in that federal measure. According to a White House fact sheet, that bill included $39 billion for mass transit.

State Rep. Andy Briggs (D-King of Prussia) also declined to comment.

“The news is disappointing, but I’m hopeful that the hard work is not for naught,” Rosenbaum told DVJournal. “Perhaps this vision can rekindle in the future.”

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SEPTA Still Struggles From Pandemic Ridership Losses, Crime

The state Senate Transportation Committee recently met at the SEPTA headquarters in Philadelphia to study its challenges up close and personal.

“It doesn’t take much for you to see firsthand when you come to visit Southeast Pennsylvania, how important SEPTA is,” said Jenny Louwerse, Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation at PennDOT. It’s also not difficult to see first-hand the problems that are putting so much stress on the system.

Violent crime, COVID-19 impacts, homelessness, illegal drug use, mental illness, and just an overall indecency for humankind are destabilizing the sustainability and future of the nation’s sixth largest mass transit system. We must not allow this to continue to plague our commonwealth,” said state Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Bedford/Cambria/Clearfield).

Serving both downtown Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, fixing SEPTA is a bipartisan concern.

“[Our region produces] 42 percent of the economic activity with 32 percent of our population in the commonwealth and only 5 percent of the land. This dense region cannot function without high capacity mass transit,” Louwerse said.

Safety and cleanliness top the riding public’s concerns. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, ridership has plunged. Now over two years into this pandemic, the number of riders using transit is only 53 percent of what it was prior to the outbreak. The regional rail lines have only reached 44 percent of their pre-pandemic levels.

Declining riders means lost revenue, and that is particularly problematic for a system that already relies heavily on taxpayer subsidies.

Currently, 49 percent of SEPTA’s operating budget comes from state taxpayers—almost double the average among transit systems nationally. In addition, 60 percent of SEPTA’s capital budget (i.e., funding for infrastructure improvement and new trains and buses) comes from the state.

Most of that funding does not come directly from taxes—though both the sales tax and lottery revenue subsidize transit systems. Rather, more than $925 million in driver charges, including turnpike tolls and vehicle fees, are diverted to transit agencies, primarily SEPTA, according to the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank.

 Compounding the ridership issue is the fear of crime that many residents have. With Philadelphia now leading the nation in crime, the issue has likely had a “trickle-down” effect on SEPTA, one resident pointed out.

Several recent incidents that drew national attention have not helped, including rapes and attacks by groups of teenagers on Asian students riding home from school on the subway.

To make matters worse, the number of officers policing SEPTA has been reduced dramatically in recent years.

“SEPTAs police department is budgeted for 260 sworn officers, but as I see here right now our police department outreach was fewer than 160 patrol officers,” explained Omari Bervine, president and CEO of the Fraternal Order of Transit Police Lodge 109. 

 SEPTA has struggled to employ enough transit officers in recent years, in large part because of lack of benefits and protections offered. Transit workers have been among the demographics most heavily impacted by the pandemic.

As long as SEPTA is permitted to treat its transit police officers in this manner, it will continue to lose talented officers to the departments that treat them fairly and with the dignity they deserve,” continued Bervine. Many residents fear that opens the door for crime. Even with the strained relations between police and citizens recently, many riders feel the availability of transit police is critical to their safety.

SEPTA is trying to address those concerns.

“We have a commitment to safety that is unwavering and we have increased spending in this year’s budget by 50 percent…. That is a total of $53 million dollars that will be spent on safety and security this year,” Louwerse said.

“If we can not convince the public that their system is safe then the entire system is doomed to fail,” Bervine said.

GIORDANO: Progressive Politics Promote Attacks on Asian-American Girls

My interview with Philadelphia City Councilmember David Oh last Thursday showed how important it is for different voices to be heard, despite the thousands of news media people in the Delaware Valley.

First, Oh told us well ahead of the news curve that the African American girls filmed attacking Asian students on a SEPTA train in Philadelphia actually had assaulted the same students on a SEPTA train the day before. This attack just happened to be filmed and be more intense.

More importantly, as I broadened the conversation, Oh brought up the narrative about Asian- Americans that he thinks pervades much of progressive thought in Philadelphia. He said, “It takes the form of the rewriting of American history.” It involves portraying Asian Americans as reaping the benefits of the civil rights movement without ever having suffered true discrimination. Oh, even launched the idea that those that want to justify their view of America as a racist country must allege that Asian-Americans are mostly recent arrivals to our country and benefit from special programs that give them an edge.

He also referenced the fact that a Philadelphia ordinance forcing businesses in certain areas to close at 11 p. m. was mainly aimed at Chinese takeout restaurants. There has been a lot of tension between Asian store owners and some African American leaders in Philadelphia around the issue of many Asian American-run businesses serving customers behind bulletproof glass. In fact, Councilmember Cindy Bass, who represents the area in which I live, debated me on this issue on my show and a few times inside some of the businesses.

There is also a good deal of tension around a Philadelphia School District initiative to remove grades and test scores to get into the district’s magnet schools and replace them with a lottery system. That was aimed not just at White students, but also Asian students who are extremely well represented in these schools.

Media outlets that have tried to make some sense of the vicious attacks we saw in the SEPTA film suggested it is part of ongoing attacks against Asian Americans due to people like former President Donald Trump and many conservative leaders calling COVID-19 the Wuhan virus and attributing its origination to a lab in Wuhan.

I see no evidence of that theory in this attack. I believe it stems from the resentment created on a daily basis from the issues that Oh and I discussed. Progressives have even labeled this minority group “White adjacent” as a way of explaining the stunning success of many Asian Americans.

Councilmember Helen Gym, who is also Asian American, the progressive darling in Philadelphia and one of the frontrunners to be the next mayor, rejects my commonsense theory around these attacks and told WHYY News, “It’s heart wrenching to see young people at such a young age harming one another. But I will underscore time and again that they are witnessing violence at an unprecedented level across our city, and we are not doing nearly enough for children right now in helping them deal with the trauma and harm that has been caused to them.”

So, this trauma theory explains this very specific targeting that we saw play out? No, it does not! I believe those students were targeted because of the resentment built up over the years against Asian Americans in Philadelphia fueled by conspiracy theories and stereotypes. As a practical matter, those girls also seemed to believe the targeted students wouldn’t fight back.

It’s time that we fight back by demanding that the accurate history of Asian Americans be included in the public school instruction in Philadelphia and by calling out any public leaders or elected officials who continue to articulate stereotypes against Asian Americans.

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