SEPTA plans use nearly $100 million in Biden infrastructure money this year

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SEPTA is negotiating with TWU Local 234 ahead of the union contract’s Oct. 31 expiration.
Metro file

SEPTA is planning to use $95 million from President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill in the coming months to advance significant long-term projects.

The authority’s leaders want to use the money — the initial round of funding from the $1 trillion federal legislation — to invest an extra $30 million in modernizing the region’s trolley system and another $30 million to make transit stations more accessible for riders with disabilities.

Projects that were likely years away from beginning will start sooner, officials said. The infusion of cash boosts SEPTA’s federal funding for the year by 40% and raises its capital budget from $619 to $714 million.

“It’s a huge assistance that we’re able to get from the federal infrastructure bill,” SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch told Metro. “It helps us accelerate these critical projects that we need to keep moving on.”

SEPTA expects to receive more than $500 million from the infrastructure plan over the next five years, with the annual total increasing slightly each year. Additional dollars could flow to the authority through the bill’s competitive grants.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this initial funding is SEPTA’s Trolley Modernization Project, a long-term initiative with an overall budget of $1.8 billion.

As part of the effort, the authority will redesign trolley stations, make stops accessible, replace trolley vehicles and set up a new maintenance facility.

The federal funds will effectively double the project’s budget for this year, bringing it to just over $60 million, according to recently released SEPTA documents.

Among the priorities is renovating the 19th and 37th street stations, work which recently qualified for a $15 million federal grant.

In addition, the infrastructure money will kickstart changes to 12 stations to ensure they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Eight Broad Street Line stations — Ellsworth-Federal, Fairmount, Hunting Park, Logan, Lombard-South, Snyder, Wyoming and Chinatown (on the Broad-Ridge Spur) — will be updated, along with the Norristown High Speed Line’s Bridgeport stop and the Bristol, Malvern and Marcus Hook Regional Rail stations.

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No money was allocated for the stations in SEPTA’s 2022 fiscal year budget, and design work was not scheduled to start for several years.

“Getting these 12 projects started now will help SEPTA achieve its goal of a 100% accessible system sooner,” said Brian McFadden, the authority’s capital budget and grant development director.

SEPTA plans to devote $3 million this year to developing a strategy to improve the busy 69th Street Transportation in Upper Darby.

Meanwhile, $15 million will go toward repairing bridges along the Chestnut Hill East and West lines and between Suburban and 30th Street station.

Transit advocates from 5th Square and the Transit Forward Coalition who spoke at a Thursday morning hearing, one of two held that day on the capital budget amendment, praised SEPTA’s plans, particularly the large investment in the trolley system.

“The series of projects SEPTA is funding with the newly available infrastructure bill funding reveals a focus on the fundamentals,” said Daniel Trubman, a member of 5th Square, a political action committee that focuses on public transportation and other urban issues.

“These projects will help grow transit ridership in the coming years and decades,” he added.

SEPTA’s board is expected to weigh in on the infrastructure-related budget amendment at its March 24 meeting.

Along with the federal boost, SEPTA leaders hope to be in a better position at a state level in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget, unveiled last month, tied funding for the authority’s capital budget, which pays for physical improvements and long-term projects, to the state vehicle tax.

Previously, the funding source was the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, but a 2013 law stipulated a switch that still needs to be codified during the state’s budget process. Negotiations in Harrisburg are ongoing.

Bush said SEPTA is pushing for the change because the authority would be allowed to borrow against the tax revenue. SEPTA cannot issue bonds on the Turnpike dollars, which are already borrowed.

The authority’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 is expected to be released next month.