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SEPTA gets record $317M grant from feds, but it won't stave off looming "fiscal cliff"

Feds award record-setting grant to SEPTA to replace train cars on Market-Frankford Line
Feds award record-setting grant to SEPTA to replace train cars on Market-Frankford Line 02:23

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- SEPTA riders can look forward to new train cars on the Market-Frankford Line. Officials with the Federal Transit Authority were at 69th Street Station in Upper Darby Wednesday to present a check for $317 million to SEPTA to replace outdated cars on its most-used line.

"These modern cars will have greater capacity, and their reliability will make our SEPTA future ready to meet the needs of this region," SEPTA General Manager and CEO Leslie Richardson said.

SEPTA leaders say the current cars on the line have been in use since the 1990s, and are often pulled for maintenance. That leads to delays and service interruptions.

This influx of money will allow the authority to buy 200 new cars, with leaders promising they'll help deliver better service.

"The Market-Frankford Line is the workhorse of SEPTA's rail network," FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez said. "And customers, about 175,000 riders a day, are now going to get better and more reliable service."

Along with better capacity, convenience, and reliability, city officials believe the new cars will also help address safety concerns that have plagued SEPTA in recent years.

"You deserve to be on a safe and clean mass transit system. And this will make it a reality," Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker said. "If we get the new rail cars and people are still afraid to ride, it's been for not."

SEPTA officials didn't give an exact timeframe on when they'll acquire and roll out the new train cars, with Richards saying it won't happen "overnight."

This $317-million grant marks the largest investment SEPTA has ever seen from the federal government, with Richards remarking it's about three times as large. But none of this money can be used for what may be SEPTA's largest looming problem: a $240 million "fiscal cliff" set to hit the agency in July.

"This is a critical time," Richards said.

SEPTA's FY24 operating budget sits at $1.69 billion, but it's also the last year the authority will have access to COVID-19 money. State lawmakers tried to ward off the budget shortfall in last year's budget with an extra $190 million to SEPTA, but the funds were left out of the final budget.

Now, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro is trying again. He pitched a $282 million increase for public transit in his state budget proposal, saying in February's budget address that $161 would go to SEPTA.

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Richards warned what would happen if that funding didn't come through.

"If we do not get, in this budget, the money that is proposed by Gov. Shapiro, if we don't get at least that level, there will be severe cuts and fair increases on SEPTA," Richards said.

State lawmakers say they understand the importance of getting that money passed, as well. State Sen. Tim Kearney says he believes lawmakers have a better plan for getting the funding passed this year. He also believes now is the right time, given the projected $14 billion state surplus.

"I'm all for being prudent and keeping money in the rainy day fund and having that safety net for the Commonwealth, but we should be investing that other part of it," Kearney said.

Federal lawmakers have expressed concern about the fiscal cliff as well. Last month, six members of Pennsylvania's federal delegation sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, warning that if SEPTA is forced to cut services, transit in our region "could undergo a death spiral as these cuts lead to decreased ridership, which would in turn lead to additional cuts."

"We all understand. And we are going to be committed to deliver the kind of resources that are necessary," Sen. John Fetterman said at Wednesday's event.

But it's unclear if the federal government is willing to step in. And in Pennsylvania's divided legislature, the state money is far from a guarantee. Still, State Sen. Kearney says he's optimistic.

"We're going to continue to make the case. I think it's an easy case to make," Kearney said.

"This money is just vital," Richards said.

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