Protesters Ride to Capitol Rally on SEPTA Buses
State Rep. Mark Gillen has ethical concerns about taxpayer-funded SEPTA buses getting used to transport employees last week to a rally about transportation in Harrisburg.
By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority used three taxpayer-funded buses to take off-duty employees from Philadelphia to Harrisburg for a midday rally at the Capitol to support increased transportation funding.
SEPTA, which gets state and federal money, signed off on the use of the buses for the Feb. 11 trip.
Barely a week before the transportation rally, Gov. Tom Corbett announced a nearly $2 billion transportation funding initiative. The plan includes funding for mass transit as well as road and bridge repairs.
The rally in Harrisburg drew hundreds of people from across the state.
Francis Kelly, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for government and public affairs, said the agency wants to preserve its place in the transportation funding discussion, which is now up to the Legislature.
“We see this package as critical to the economy of the state,” Kelly said. “We want to make sure people are moving.”
Top SEPTA management signed off on the bus use; a third party covered the gas and toll costs, which totaled $631.53.
“Our general manager Joe Casey did allow the buses to be used,” Kelly said. “He made it clear that there can’t be any cost to the authority.”
SEPTA sent an invoice to the Keystone Funding Transportation Coalition. It’s a member of tha group, which brings together unions, chambers of commerce, transit activists and interest groups with the shared goal of a comprehensive transportation plan.
The coalition holds monthly meetings and has an online newsletter, but it doesn’t have a bank account or bylaws of its own.
The coalition turned the bill over to the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, a trade group for the road and bridge construction industry. That group will cover the bill using an education advocacy fund, which is funded by the group’s members.
Many of the coalition’s members, who were at a summit at the Harrisburg Hilton across the street from the Capitol on Feb. 11, may have also attended the rally, and vice versa.
The SEPTA employees who attended the rally all did so voluntarily, Kelly said, and were not scheduled to work during daytime hours. SEPTA offers service 24-7, and employees have staggered shifts.
Kelly said SEPTA conducted a similar bus trip to Harrisburg during a prior large-scale transportation funding initiative — Act 44 of 2007. Transportation funding bills, Kelly pointed out, don’t come up very often, underscoring the need for advocacy.
Sending employees to the hill was “the kickoff,” he said.
Now comes the legislative process, which is decidedly less visible than a protest.
SEPTA is the nation’s sixth largest public transportation system with buses, light rail and regional rail. SEPTA service covers a 2,200-square-mile region spanning five counties and employing about 9,000 people.
State Rep. Mark Gillen, R-Berks, was heading back to his Reading-based district from Harrisburg on Feb. 11 when he noticed the SEPTA buses on the turnpike near Lancaster.
Gillen said he figured SEPTA buses could only travel within their Philadelphia-area routes, more than 80 miles away.
Gillen had his staff contact SEPTA to learn whether the buses could be used off-route by members of the general public. The answer was no.
GILLEN: The Berks County representative thinks SEPTA inappropriately used its own buses to send employees to Harrisburg for a transportation funding rally.
“If I went to Trailways or Greyhound and said, ‘I’d like to use one of your buses but I’ll just pay you for tolls and gas,’ it’d be a very short conversation,” Gillen said.
Gillen said the bus usage is taxpayer-funded lobbying, and the use of expensive public property – the buses – is now the burden of SEPTA, he said.
“I find some irony that SEPTA has the need for more public funding for their heavily subsidized system,” Gillen said. “Yet extra buses are available for traveling to Harrisburg protests.”
Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s chief financial officer, said the system has to make some critical capital upgrades and estimates $500 million in “shovel-ready” projects that SEPTA could begin to advance if a transportation funding bill is passed.
SEPTA has a capital funding plan to address renovations, asset purchases and upgrades. The agency’s fiscal 2013 capital funding budget includes about 40 percent, or $122.4 million, in state funding. The balance is mostly federal funding, with a 1.7 percent — or $5.2 million — local match.
“That is the most critical need facing SEPTA right now,” Burnfield said. “We have 350 railroad bridges. One hundred of those bridges are 100 years old.”
But Gillen said SEPTA should divorce its on-the-ground efforts in the Capitol from its public equipment.
“You’re welcome to protest,” he said. “But don’t use, at least in part, the taxpayer nickel to do it.”
Contact Melissa Daniels at firstname.lastname@example.org