A billion-dollar boondoggle

Posted: May 16, 2023 by chrisharper in Uncategorized

By Christopher Harper

Pennsylvania voters won’t get an opportunity to vote in today’s primary on one of the biggest boondoggles in the state: the Philadelphia public transportation system.

The system, called the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, is a billion-dollar mess!

The latest issue with SEPTA centers on the fare cards that don’t work well, causing the organization to dump the system after spending $285 million on the flawed system. That’s more than double the original budget.

Announced with much fanfare, the delayed 2016 rollout left many residents wishing the agency had remained in the analog age. The cards have been unreliable from the start, the vending machines that distribute them are slow and confusing, and SEPTA’s choice to use proprietary systems left the agency at the mercy of the manufacturer of the cards.

It’s unclear whether SEPTA and Conduent Inc., the company has cashed in, are incompetent or corrupt, but it’s probably a bit of both.

In 2011, SEPTA hired Conduent, a Xerox spin-off headquartered in Florham Park, N.J., to design and build the Key Card system for $129.5 million. It was supposed to be operational by 2014, and Conduent has come under fire over other projects. Last December, for instance, Conduent settled for $32 million in a class-action lawsuit brought by investors who said the company misled them about its progress in updating its information technology for toll-collecting systems.

SEPTA’s 50-year history has often been a tumultuous one. Railpace Newsmagazine contributor Gerry Williams observed that SEPTA regularly staggers from crisis to crisis. It has a long history of being at odds with the riding public and both county and state officials and has had more labor strikes than any other transit agency in the U.S., occurring in 1977, 1981, 1983, 1986, 1995, 1998, 2005, 2009, 2014, and 2016.

Williams commented that there is a notable lack of “any group… influential enough to bring shame on SEPTA,” adding that the organization’s chronic ills “merely reflect the broader problems of local provincialism and petty political squabbles which are so rampant within the region.”

Since taxpayers, including those far from Philly, pony up about $1 billion a year to run the system, letting the voters have a more significant say in what goes on would make sense. The 15 board members should be elected rather than chosen by government officials who hand out favors rather than balance budgets.

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