FTA steps up in Philly (late & for wrong reason)

FTA steps up in Philly (late & for wrong reason)

In a welcome reversal (for aficionados of sane government, that is), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has decided to deny federal funding to a controversial and dubious light-rail transit extension in suburban Philadelphia.

Better late than never. But it’s for the wrong reason.

The FTA says it has no assurances that SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, could come up with its 40 percent local taxpayer share of the $3 billion-plus cost of the project, a cost that was sure to continue exploding. The FTA was to put up 60 percent in federal tax dollars.

Construction on the 4-mile extension of SEPTA’s light-rail service to King of Prussia, known as the KOP Rail Extension, was scheduled to begin in 2025. SEPTA already had spent at least $53 million on the boondoggle-in-the-making.

As one might expect, SEPTA was quick to adopt the Unionized Educratic Establishment excuse for the local-share failure – a lack of sufficient taxpayer funding.

“SEPTA’s capital budget has been underfunded for decades,” complained Leslie S. Richards, the authority’s general manager and CEO, in a news release.

“This has left the authority with significantly fewer resources than peer agencies to pursue system expansion while also addressing critical infrastructure needs,” she said.

“This process further highlights the critical need for new transit funding at the state and local levels. In order to pursue any service extensions in the future, SEPTA needs more support,” Richards said.

Oh, the whine of public money-sucking bureaucrat.

Fact of the matter is, the KOP Rail Extension was the proverbial dog that would not hunt from the get-go.

As Sandy Smith wrote in Philadelphia Magazine nearly six years ago, citing critics’ growing opposition to the extension:

It would have delivered no benefit to current King of Prussia residents.

It would not have converted drivers into riders.

It would have increased traffic congestion in King of Prussia’s core.

The extension’s path was ill-conceived.

And it bypassed the kind of development it supposedly was designed to reinforce.

Other than that, the KOP Rail Extension was a great idea, right?

While we will offer all due kudos to the FTA for finally putting the kibosh on this latest round of nonsense from SEPTA (perhaps better known for delivery of corruption instead of riders), where was the FTA at the outset?

And isn’t the sole rationale that SEPTA couldn’t shake down taxpayers to cover its local share of the project more than a tad disingenuous? Gee, how about a more critical federal analyses if such projects will do anything close to what their advocates claim?

They typically do not. Just think of Pittsburgh’s North Shore Connector, where the public must be bribed with free rides to use it.

The King of Prussia light-rail extension scuttling came mere days after the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority scrapped plans to create an “air train” to LaGuardia Airport in Queens. That project’s cost had ballooned from $450 million to $2.4 billion.

Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) continues to plan for its pie-in-the-sky extension of its light-rail service to points West and North. Which you can bet would only exacerbate its already and continually out-of-whack costs structure, with plenty of sops to organized labor to boot.

Should the PRT extension become anything more than a wish-list item, and the authority expects federal dollars to pay for the lion’s share of it,  the FTA would be prudent to scrutinize it not merely for its local funding availability but for its basic operational efficacy.

That should not be too much to ask.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).