MIDDLETOWN — Standing on a bed of mulch encircling a Middletown car dealership, Tamara Masland looks like an arctic explorer without the bobsled and Siberian huskies.
With $2.50 in the pocket of her puffy coat, Masland braces for the wind chill and waits for the 7:57 a.m. Route 128 bus — just the beginning of her daily commute, a 90-minute trek into Philadelphia.
In Warrington, Tom Mahoney stands in rush hour traffic on Route 611, flailing his arms for the attention of the Route 55 bus driver. He says he’s willing to risk injury and embarrassment rather than sit unseen in the dark and wait for the next bus.
In Bucks County, where the car is king, Masland and Mahoney are on the road less traveled.
Fewer than 5 percent of all county residents take mass transit to work, the U.S. Census estimates. Yet, local taxpayers contribute millions for a bus and train system that some riders described as inconvenient and, at times, dangerous.
Riders said they wish SEPTA would expand deeper into the suburbs with longer operating hours and more convenient stops.
But that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. And as far as expanding access and availability to the transit system in Bucks County, SEPTA officials declined to estimate the cost.
“There’s no easy answer to that,” said Richard Burnfield, deputy general manager for SEPTA. “Every bus route is a little different.”
SEPTA is not responsible for conditions at local bus stops, Burnfield said. Local officials and property owners are responsible for the conditions in Bucks County, Burnfield said.
“We have standards that we will put out in terms of what we would suggest, but it’s really up to the municipality or the business park,” Burnfield said. “We don’t maintain the stops. As part of our service planning, we’ll look at ridership, and we’ll make recommendations and we’ll make a determination as to where the stop is ... if it’s at point A or point B.
“But once that determination has been made, we do not dictate what the passenger amenities are,” Burnfield continued. “A lot of the routes have been out there for 10, 20, 35 years. I’m not going to say that we’ve gone out and told that municipality, ‘Hey, we have a stop here.’ A lot of it’s just long-standing history.”
A reporter attempted to ask questions about conditions and route additions during SEPTA’s Jan. 25 board meeting. Board Chairman Pat Deon, who did not respond to previous interview requests, directed those questions to Burnfield.
How it works
In the end, SEPTA doesn’t have cash for new bus stops. The authority runs on government subsidies; $914 million in federal, state and local subsidies make up 65 percent its budget for fiscal year 2017-18, and the lion’s share of that money — $725 million — will come from taxpayers across the state, documents show. In addition to state and federal tax money, Montgomery County has committed $5.3 million and Bucks County another $2.7 million in local subsidies to keep SEPTA running for the next 12 months, according to budget documents.
The money SEPTA collects from passengers — $513 million — would never come close to paying for the salaries and benefits for SEPTA’s 9,653 employees, financial records show. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, SEPTA expects to spend $636 million for worker wages alone.
That breaks down to $65,936 per worker, officials said. Health, pension and other worker benefits were budgeted to cost SEPTA $400 million, or roughly $41,779 per employee.
Expanding SEPTA in the suburbs would mean more capital and more worker costs. And where that money would come from is unknown. According to the Federal Transit Administration, every year SEPTA spends roughly $628 million on bus services and it collects only $174 million in fares from riders.
That’s not usual, Burnfield said. All modes of transportation are subsidized.
“Highways are funded with grant programs,” he said. “The airports are funded through federal grant programs. Waterways are funded. Every form of transportation there is has some sort of subsidization. And one can’t work without another.”
Tonia Carroll, of Bristol Township, takes the bus during the week to and from her job at First Presbyterian Church in Bristol Township. Unable to afford a car, she rides the bus, except on Sundays.
“It’s really bad on the weekends,” Carroll said. “There are no buses that run out this way.”
Smith spends $5 each day on the bus. Without it, she would walk an hour and 15 minutes on roads, which in many places, lack sidewalks.
Taya Smith, of Philadelphia, said she spends three hours a day commuting to and from work, but is grateful that she has a way to get there. She’s on four buses a day to get to her job at Kohl’s in Doylestown Township.
“I needed a job and this was my first offer,” said Smith, who added that she wishes the buses that travel the 611 corridor to and from Philadelphia offered more frequent stops.
“But it can get cold out here — that’s when you feel it,” Smith said, as she waited for her ride home at the corner of Almshouse and Route 611 in Doylestown Township one cold night.
SEPTA’s busiest route through Bucks County is the Lansdale/Doylestown Regional Rail line, which averages some 17,707 riders on weekdays, according to SEPTA statistics.
The Trenton line connects to Bensalem, Croydon, Morrisville and Tullytown, and averages 12,565 daily trips, according to SEPTA. Weekday ridership on the Warminster line averages 9,568, according to the authority.
SEPTA is expanding service on its Regional Rail lines with the purchase of 15 new, electric locomotives and 45 bi-level and multi-level coaches, Burnfield said.
“We’re looking to expand service on the Trenton line with new trains and the double-deckers,” Burnfield said. “We’re going to be doubling the locomotive fleet. We’re going to have more trains running and more capacity.”
SEPTA representatives themselves have acknowledged that accessibility to multiple stations — primarily in Lower Bucks — could be improved through a series of agency and municipal projects.
Despite the 2011 reconstruction of Croydon Station in Bristol Township, SEPTA found “the surrounding infrastructure stops short of creating pedestrian and bicycle-friendly access,” according to a station access report SEPTA published in December 2017. The report suggested better connectivity to the station’s south, on Cedar Avenue, new bike racks under the station’s canopy and a possible multi-use trail along Cedar Avenue, State and River roads.
In the document, representatives also referred to Eddington Station in Bensalem as “extremely difficult to access by all modes” — the station has “no available parking, limited bus service and little to no bicycle or pedestrian facilities.”
SEPTA said it receives no payments from any business organizations in exchange for stops at specific locations.
“SEPTA service to shopping malls and Parx Casino is mutually beneficial because it results in increased SEPTA ridership while providing essential service for retail, entertainment and employment purposes,” said SEPTA spokesman John Golden. “SEPTA has coordinated with private management to provide safe on-property routings and transit stop locations within the properties for the benefit of customers.”
Anyone can propose a new route or changes to an existing line, officials said.
“Suggestions are welcomed from the general public, elected officials, as well as from city and county planning organizations,” said Golden, adding that any changes ultimately must be approved by the SEPTA board.
Meanwhile, some residents of central and upper Bucks County are desperate for bus stops. Virginia Driesbach has been lobbying for a bus stop in Sellersville for years, she said.
When living without a car in the suburbs, the price to get around affects more than her wallet. For Driesbach, the lack of transportation influences her ability to socialize. The closest bus stop is more than 5 miles away in Souderton.
Without a train, SEPTA bus or a car to get around, she relies on walking and — when she can schedule a trip — an occasional ride from Bucks County Transit.
“It’s not easy, and it’s difficult in the winter because of the snow,” Driesbach said. “Sometimes I feel like a child not being able to go anywhere.”
Her wish list for getting around isn’t very long. She’d like to take a train to Philadelphia, she’d like to walk around Peddler’s Village during the holidays and she’d like to have the flexibility to meet someone out for lunch at a café.
“It affects socialization, not having a car,” she said.
Paige Neuman, a manager with the Pennridge Fish Food Pantry, said the lack of public transportation is a huge challenge, especially in reaching the needy with services and food.
“I was helping one single mom who had a 30-minute walk to the pantry; she was very pregnant and had two little kids,” said Neuman, recalling how the woman would push the stroller up a hill to get food. “We are limited to how we can help; but it’s the most painful thing to watch.”