Although SEPTA workers are trying to modernize stations, Knueppel says a lot of the structures are deemed historic, so a careful approach to the projects is necessary, and third-party workers skilled in restoration are needed.
Burnfield says SEPTA has been very active in getting a sense from the community in what’s wanted out of the rebuilds and restorations. While planning the Allen Lane station reconstruction on the regional rail line, he says there was a strong sense of community around the station and once it was restored to its original state, the community has helped to maintain the station.
“That station has really been a sense of pride of an area of the city that was beginning to transition,” he says. “Our investment has really helped that community out.”
But with the lack of capital funding hindering update efforts, SEPTA leaders have had to become more creative in approaching projects. While making improvements to a station in West Philadelphia a couple years ago, Knueppel says SEPTA learned to do a lot more of its work during summer when less people are riding the system and doing longer service shutdowns as opposed to just weekend work to get the project completed quicker and more efficiently. While the renovations were underway, express bus service was offered for riders in order to lessen the inconvenience to them.
During the rebuilding of the stations along the Market-Frankford line, SEPTA also reached out to the community around stations, such as the 60th Street station in West Philadelphia during the design phase. And while looking into a new parking structure at the 69th Street station, the agency is looking into a public-private partnership in order to accomplish the project in a cost-efficient manner.
Burnfield says SEPTA’s capital budget is half funded by the federal government while the other half is made up of funds from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the city and local counties. Despite the capital funding issues, the agency is helped out by the lottery, which funds senior citizen riders, and a 45 to 46 percent cost recovery by the system.
“There used to be a requirement before Act 44 passed in 2007 that SEPTA had to recover 50 percent of costs from the farebox,” Burnfield says. “It’s a challenge, but we still made it. It’s still a challenge, but we’re still well into the 40s.”
With the leadership’s commitment to replacing items like catenary, Knueppel says the enthusiasm for the job has spread to the workers performing the maintenance and replacements. Since the beginning of the replacement of wire in the past 13 years, workers replaced lines which hadn’t been replaced since the 1930s.
Because of that enthusiasm, it has also helped SEPTA keep a very aggressive schedule to replace aging equipment. In one instance, Knueppel says a bus loop project where the loop was reconstructed and traffic reversed onto a highway that had just been rebuilt by the state went from planning to ribbon cutting in just 16 months.
“I often say I have a need for speed,” Knueppel says. “That’s one of the other ways you stretch your capital dollars. No fooling around, OK? You keep moving.”
Because of the speed SEPTA has done its work, Burnfield says it has been easier for the agency to get competitive grants from the Federal Transit Administration because it shows the agency can turn work around quickly. When American Recovery and Reinvestment Act legislation was first floated in order to get people back to work, Knueppel says SEPTA was able to get 54 different contracts out and signed less than one year after the signing of the bill. Design work was started eight weeks before ARRA was signed into law, Knueppel says, on a gamble the legislation would be passed.
“We’ve received some other competitive grants based on our track record,” Burnfield says. “When we tell folks we can get something done, we can show that we mean what we say.”
Knueppel says right now SEPTA is putting together plans to try and extend the life of the Broad Street subway cars to get at least 40 years out of them and identifying other fleets that can have their life extended in order to replace others.