SEPTA leaders say there’s plenty of work that could be done at the city hall station and they’re trying to get it done. Efforts are underway to revitalize the area and open up shops that closed long ago, but Kawasaki train cars dating from the 1980s continue running in the subway, while the walls of the stations deteriorate. And the ceiling of the station is actually the floor of city hall itself.
To make matters worse, the station is used by the infrequent riders who use the system to get to the AT&T Sports Complex, souring their opinion of SEPTA given the shabby state of the station.
“When you have your infrequent riders, you want to be able to show off your good stuff,” Jerri Williams, director of SEPTA media relations says.
Although SEPTA is seeing a 23-year high in ridership, the capital funding available has dropped off significantly due to the inability of state leaders to implement a funding mechanism for transit, such as placing tolls on I-80, causing a $100 million drop in capital funds for SEPTA, which is a 15-year low.
Knueppel says in terms of bringing the system into a state of good repair, it was estimated at $4.7 billion in 2011 dollars. In order to eliminate the backlog in a 20-year timeframe, $658 million per year would need to be allocated to capital projects. In order to keep the backlog of work at its current level, $329 million per year would need to be spent.
SEPTA currently spends $200 million per year on capital projects.
Knueppel says SEPTA’s chief engineering officer of safety even has the chance of replacing every single signal system on the property during the course of his career.
“As crazy as it is, we saved the transformers from one of our substations. We saved the parts from 1931,” he says. “Because the Reading system is a one-of-a-kind system, so we had to save a transformer from 1931.”
Despite the age issues, Knueppel says there are no speed restrictions due to track conditions within SEPTA, with the exception of one portion of the Norristown line. The speed restriction is due to a 3,000-foot-long viaduct built in 1912 in need of structural and paint repairs. Due to the lack of capital funds, SEPTA will only have enough money to replace the timbers.
Knueppel says SEPTA won’t run anything that isn’t safe, but it’s getting harder to do so. One viaduct on the regional rail line he says was closed by Conrail before SEPTA took it over due to safety concerns, but it was reopened after work was performed in 1984 to keep it open another 25 years. The viaduct is still operating with those same repairs in place.
“It’s safe and we do a lot of things to it, but we wish we could replace it,” Knueppel says. “This was designed for very light steam locomotives.”
Rebuilding a giant
SEPTA has a lot of needs in terms of repairs, but if it’s modernized, Philadelphia could have a world-class transit system.
“One of the things is look at our rail system. It’s very extensive in that this region was very blessed to have a very large transit infrastructure in place,” says Richard Burnfield, CFO and treasurer of SEPTA. “When you compare Philadelphia to other cities, they’re spending billions of dollars to build what we already have. Our challenge is to fix it and bring it back to a good state of repair.”
The workhorse of SEPTA is the Market-Frankford Line running west to east through the heart of the city. Part El, part subway, the line dates back to the early 1900s and up until a few years ago, most of the infrastructure along it was almost as old as the line itself. When the agency decided it was time to make upgrades along the line, they started by taking SEPTA’s maintenance and construction crews and third-party crews and placed them all under the leadership of the new infrastructure division in order to get all crews on the same page and at the same meetings in order to complete the rebuild as efficiently as possible.
“It brings a lot of ownership into the capital projects, too,” says Robert Lund, assistant general manager of maintenance, engineering and construction for SEPTA. “They realize they’re not just building it and walking away.”
Knueppel says all projects are tackled through a hybrid of in-house workers and third-party agencies in order to stretch capital dollars while speeding up the projects and allotting the work to those who can do each job best. When multiple contractors are involved, he says one will not be brought in until their piece of work is ready to do in order to avoid delay claims.