Philadelphia transit dependent on $1.5B in COVID-19 funding while trying to rebuild ridership

The transit agency that serves Philadelphia has received $1.5 billion in federal COVID-19 emergency funds that will keep it operating until 2024 as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority ponders its postpandemic future.

Ridership on the Philadelphia transit agency plummeted during the pandemic, as it did across the country. SEPTA’s total boardings dropped 22% in 2020, according to the National Transit Authority.

Average daily rides dropped from just over 1 million in January 2020 to just under 100,000 by April 2020. In March 2020, Philadelphia was under a stay-at-home order and SEPTA encouraged it riders to stay off their system for “nonessential” purposes.

Meanwhile, the transit agency was propped up by the injection of federal emergency funds.

“These funds are helping SEPTA cover the everyday expenses of operating the transit system while we rebuild ridership,” transit spokesman Andrew Busch wrote in an email to The Center Square.

In January 2022, ridership was back to 40% of pre-COVID levels, Busch said. SEPTA wants to get ridership to 80% of pre-COVID levels by 2024, when the federal money is exhausted.

But what remains unclear is how much the transit market has changed due to the pandemic.

A study done by Philadelphia’s Center City District and the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation released in February 2022 found some support for making remote work permanent. The survey found 8% of businesses in the district were making “work-from-home” policies permanent and 45% said that they would provide greater flexibility for working form home and that policy was here to stay.

SEPTA offers commuter rail, heavy rail, bus, street car rail and trolleybus modes of transportation.

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