Thursday, May 06, 2010

At aging SEPTA station, a call for more rail funding

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Standing before a Depression-era railroad power station in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter warned May 6 that such aging relics could imperil the region's commuter rail network and its highways, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Without more money for transportation funding to replace decrepit power stations, bridges, and other transportation mainstays, the Philadelphia region faces a "real peril to public safety," Rendell said.

"We're playing a little Russian roulette" with deteriorating structures, he said.

Rendell, Nutter, and Rob Wonderling, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, were at SEPTA's Wayne Junction substation to urge state legislators to provide more money for highways, bridges and mass transit.

The aging substation, which supplies power to trains on six SEPTA rail lines, was built in 1931 and would cost $50 million to $75 million to replace. SEPTA has 19 power substations, and 15 are as old as Wayne Junction or older.

Rendell convened a special session of the legislature May 4 to deal with a $472-million-a-year hole in the state's transportation budget, created by a federal rejection of the state's plan to place tolls on I-80. SEPTA stands to lose $110 million a year - about a quarter of its capital budget - if the anticipated money is not replaced. About $350 million a year for highways and bridges is at stake.

More than 20 major SEPTA projects, including a new Wayne Junction power station, are in limbo because of the cuts, SEPTA officials said.

And 47 of SEPTA's 341 bridges are in poor condition, including the 115-year old Crum Creek bridge on the Media-Elwyn line. The bridge needs to be replaced at a cost of $57 million, SEPTA says. Three other century-old bridges that need to be replaced on the Norristown and Chestnut Hill East rail lines and Norristown High Speed Line would cost $27 million.

With trains rumbling behind him, Nutter said the state's transportation crisis "could, quite honestly, lead to tragedy."

Nutter also said jobs would be lost and traffic congestion would get worse if the legislature did not act. "This is a call to arms," he said. "This is a serious issue that must be addressed."

Wonderling said the local business community "believes the sound, prudent investment in infrastructure is a core function of state government." He said the region's mobility was a key to attracting and keeping businesses.

"It's central to employees and employers alike," he said.

Wonderling, a former Republican state senator from Montgomery County, said business leaders "do not view this as a partisan issue."

Leaders of the Republican-controlled state Senate, including Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, have said their first priority is passing a state budget. They will deal with transportation funding if time permits, Pileggi said.

Rendell urged the legislature to do more than just fill the $472-million-a-year gap. He said lawmakers should raise $3.5 billion a year, the amount cited by a transportation advisory committee as needed to rebuild the state's highways, bridges, and transit.

An increase in the state gasoline tax is one possible source of new money. Other proposals include imposing the state sales tax on gasoline sales, boosting motor-vehicle fees, setting a new tax on oil company profits, and adding tolls to existing highways, such as I-95.

Rendell said there was "no way out" without raising taxes, fees or tolls.

"You get what you pay for, folks," he said. "The people of Pennsylvania and the people of America understand that."

Rendell, who has only eight more months in office, noted that some candidates to replace him had taken a no-new-taxes pledge, which could block any new transportation funding.

"We have to fix the problem this year," Rendell said. "Put it on the desk of a governor who has never taken a no-new-taxes pledge."

Several leaders of the neighborhood around the run-down passenger station at Wayne Junction said SEPTA had also delayed long-planned repairs and improvements to the station, because of funding shortages.

"For years, we were told it was about to be redeveloped," said Majeedah Rashid, executive vice president of the Nicetown Community Development Corp. "Things are ready to go. If there's a delay now, it will have a domino effect on development in Nicetown."

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