A National Stake in Philadelphia Transit's Struggle

NEAL R. PEIRCE

August 19, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia. -- Louis J. Gambaccini has learned to preach strong but vividly contrasting sermons in his effort to save, for the public and the future, America's fourth-largest mass-transit system.

On the one hand Gambaccini plays Mr. Gloom, Doom and Warning. During the budget battles of spring '91 he pointedly raised the specter of halting, for lack of money, the entire Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority he heads -- a subway-rail-trolley-bus system that covers a five-county area the size of Delaware and carries 1.2 million riders a day.

Even with the nation's highest base transit fare ($1.50) and 55 percent of its operating revenues paid by riders, SEPTA has had barely enough cash to maintain operations -- not to mention attacking its massive backlog of rusted tracks, water leak-plagued subways and decayed bridges. At least one bridge dates back to the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

''We're not crying wolf -- a real shutdown is a possibility,'' Mr. Gambaccini warned in April, citing reluctance of the deficit-ridden federal, Pennsylvania and city governments to provide critically needed assistance.

Yet even in the midst of its trauma, SEPTA in May issued an ambitious ''Vision of the Future'' done jointly with the planning staffs of Philadelphia and surrounding Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.

''Vision'' speaks boldly of serving suburbs as well as cities, starting new cross-county rail lines and transportation centers, making SEPTA integral to reducing alarmingly high levels of air pollution and boosting the region's mobility and economy.

Struggling for your agency's very existence even while you contemplate exciting 21st century possibilities is the odd lot of a professional government manager in the numbing '90s.

One moment Mr. Gambaccini is reading the riot act about SEPTA's capital needs -- $4.5 billion in the '90s, to get the system back in decent operating shape. And in the next he tries to sell to whomever will listen the glowing potentials -- by one economist's study, a prospective return of $9 to the Philadelphia-area economy for every dollar invested in new or replaced SEPTA facilities.

You have to wonder who'd let himself in for such a perplexing job -- complete with the peril of being the last SEPTA general manager.

For one thing, Mr. Gambaccini didn't need this $191,700-a-year job to prove his mettle. Silver-haired, recently turned 60, he'd held high positions with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, headed New Jersey Transit and served as that state's commissioner of transportation. He helped found and chaired the Washington-based Center for Excellence in Government.

Mr. Gambaccini is the kind of public figure we in the media too rarely tell people about -- not the young man on the make, but the accomplished professional who relishes a tough public job, pulls it off with humor and aplomb and likely believes that if he can't accomplish the mission, no one could.

Even so, Mr. Gambaccini told me ''I didn't expect this job to be so tough. I thought the force of logic -- the need to reinvest in a great transit system -- would carry more weight. It's maddeningly hard to get results.''

The Pennsylvania General Assembly, heavy with rural and suburban politicians prone to making hay from Philadelphia-bashing, was particularly hard to convince.

So Mr. Gambaccini carried his blunt, urgent message to the media, running newspaper ''advertorials'' to underscore SEPTA's role in restraining air pollution, reducing the need for new roads and enriching the state economy including jobs for supply firms hundreds of miles from the big city.

Close down SEPTA, he argued, and central Philadelphia's 285,000-person work force, 70 percent of which now commutes by public transit, would be forced into autos that would require 45 new (but nonexistent) freeway lanes and transform the entire downtown into one mega-parking lot.

Then Mr. Gambaccini distributed an independent Urban Institute survey which found a SEPTA shutdown would cost the Philadelphia region, by the year 2020, 170,000 jobs, $9.6 billion in yearly personal income and $15 billion in yearly business sales.

Mr. Gambaccini and his allies went a step beyond rhetoric: They organized politically. They set up the Southeastern Pennsylvania Area Coalition for Transportation, a combination of some 350 business, labor, rider, senior citizen and environmental groups, to lobby both in Harrisburg and Washington.

This spring SEPTA took the lead in setting up a coalition with the 37 other mass transit agencies in Pennsylvania. And then it created an unprecedented alliance with the state's highway lobby -- each to pressure for funding for the other's urgent agendas.

Early in August the Pennsylvania legislature finally created the first dedicated fund for mass transit in the state's history -- a $200 million-a-year fund from which SEPTA will receive $140 million. SEPTA's getting another $90 million in regular state capital grants.

The state action, in the midst of a dire fiscal crisis, doesn't solve all of SEPTA's cash problems but does mean SEPTA can accelerate its repair and rehabilitation plans.

But the Pennsylvania victory came only after excruciating effort. Mass transit faces parallel battles from New York to Miami to Chicago to Seattle. State as well as federal aid is becoming indispensable.

Nor will solid transit-agency management, alone, turn the trick. The extraordinary public-relations skills Mr. Gambaccini has used save SEPTA will be increasingly critical to save the day for transit, and the cities' future.

Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

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