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SEPTA budget crisis averted

For months, it looked like mass transit in Philadelphia was in financial crisis. Fares would have to rise, service would be cut, and the R5 line that serves Wayne and St. Davids was rumored to be losing all weekend service. Politicians were in a tizzy.

But then, on March 1, Pa. governor Ed Rendell revealed that a massive grant from federal highway funding had been given to Pennsylvania, and that it would be used to keep SEPTA running through 2007. Two-thirds of the $666 million will go towards mass transit across Pennsylvania, and the rest will pay for road improvements.

Originally, Rendell had been meeting with legislative leaders to find a permanent solution to this crisis. He had already succeeded in transferring $9.8 million in highway funds to SEPTA, but only as a temporary fix. Rendell and state legislators were weighing other options such as raising motor vehicle fees, making the four cent gas tax increase permanent and increasing state real estate taxes by .5 percent.

In later meetings with city legislators, Rendell presented another proposal that would have salvage SEPTA’s situation. He suggested raising $355 million by securing a 3.8 cent increase in an oil company franchise tax. At one point, Rendell also asked the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to transfer $85 million in highway funds so the transportation authority could survive until June without making any changes.

Much of this happened after he already knew of the coming federal money, prompting Republican lawmakers to question his motives.

Other suggestions to impose a parking fee, toll the Schuylkill Expressway and raise local financial contributions to mass transit were made by Stephen Miskin, spokesman for Republican State Rep. Sam Smith, the House Majority Leader. Mishkin presented these ideas as an alternative to increasing the real estate tax.

While the crisis has been averted for the near future, the continuing problem of the money mass transit loses will need to be addressed within the next few years.

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