Jake Blumgart writes in Next American City about the prospects for a regional tax base for SEPTA:
What is needed, quite simply, is more money. Unlike many other transit authorities, SEPTA relies largely on federal and state funding, while Philadelphia and the six other counties that benefit from its services don’t offer much support at all.
“We have been looking into the idea of more local funding for mass transit, a region-wide tax to support SEPTA,” says Andy Sharpe, communications director for the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP). “You see other metro areas that are actually constructing new stations and expanding their system with local funding. You just don’t see that here in the Delaware Valley, but it is a dialogue that we have begun.”
Regional taxing initiatives to pay for expanding and modernizing public transit have been gaining momentum across the United States over the last decade. The Center for Transportation Excellence is dedicated to championing such initiatives, usually by means of ballot measures which they consider more reliable than simple legislative action. Since the CTE began tracking transit investment ballot initiatives in 2000, 71 percent have passed. That’s more than twice the standard win rate for ballot measures overall.
PA doesn’t allow ballot initiatives for too many things, and I don’t know of any precedent for a multi-county ballot initiative, so there would almost certainly need to be some action from the state legislature to enable this first. It could be a heavy lift politically, but if it’s sold as a way to free up scarce state transportation dollars, I think there’s a chance it could pass.
The best way to do the regional funding is through value capture, rather than a sales or wage tax. You could do something like a half mill increase on the assessed site value of land within a 2 mile radius of train stations. Land near transit stations is very valuable, but too much of it is wasted on Park-and-Ride parking lots. The point of value capture would be to spur dense development on the land near transit stops, which in turn would make the land more valuable and generate even more money for SEPTA.
One thing I like about a regional ballot initiative is that counties like Lehigh County, that are near SEPTA connections but not yet served by the transit system, could potentially pass ballot initiatives to join the SEPTA tax base, and get the ball rolling on service expansion instead of waiting around for local politicians to get their act together.