Wednesday, September 01, 2004


As a follow-up to last week's report on the planned demise of the Route 311/Commonwealth Breeze, it appears the service will limp on for at least a couple more months. From today's Inquirer:

For seven years, Shannon Ricks has taken the Broad Street subway, two buses, and the Route 311 shuttle to her far-flung job off Horsham Road in Montgomery County.

But SEPTA's Route 311 bus - known as the Commonwealth Breeze - is threatened by lack of private funding. Unless new support is found, Ricks and about 100 other riders could lose the last leg of a long commute by mid-autumn.
The economic policies of either President Bush or Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D-Pa./Comcast SportsNet) can be blamed here, depending on which side of the political aisle you're on. Personally, while a lot of the mergers haven't exactly been stopped by the Bush Administration, Harrisburg - nor for that matter, the idiots running (or ruining) the city at Broad and Market -isn't exactly doing a great job of encouraging these merged companies to stay in the region.

A series of corporate mergers and redeployments in a continually sluggish economy has resulted in companies withdrawing funding for the Route 311. Montgomery County officials say the county cannot afford to solely sponsor the bus.

The Commonwealth Breeze began running during an effervescent job market in 1997, taking passengers from the Willow Grove Park mall to jobs on Welsh, Dresher, and Horsham Roads, to name a few.

Unlike most SEPTA routes, which are funded mostly by the state and by riders' fares, the Route 311 is supported both by riders paying a full SEPTA fare and by Montgomery County and company sponsors.
The 310/Horsham Breeze, 314, and 316/LUCY bus routes are the other routes in this category.

As a transit novelty for suburban firms desperate, at that time, for entry-level workers, the Breeze was a crucial link.

"Housing for people who make those kinds of salaries is just not available in Montgomery County," said Leo D. Bagley, associate director of the county Planning Commission.
Hey, Leo, been to Norristown or Pottstown lately?

Ricks, 25, was one of many who traveled long distances for entry-level jobs that started at $10 an hour. From her home in Germantown, she often spent between three and four hours to reach the Fleet offices in Horsham, where she works as a credit investigator.

"The only good jobs," she said, "are outside the city."
And for this, we can thank the dis-honorable John F. Street, Emperor of Philadelphia for doing virtually nothing to jump-start the city's economy.

And now, like the Commonwealth Breeze, those jobs are in jeopardy. Since merging with Bank of America earlier this year, Fleet has pared its Tournament
Drive operation from five buildings to one. ...

As jobs on the route have declined in recent years, ridership has fallen by about half, SEPTA reported. As a result, the daily number of riders has declined from 221 in 2001 to fewer than 100 in recent months.

Two firms that originally financed the Commonwealth Breeze have withdrawn support for the bus: Advanta Corp. in 2000 and Prudential Financial Inc. earlier this year. Prudential, an insurance and financial-services conglomerate, transferred a group-insurance unit away from the area to another Horsham location, company spokeswoman Alicia Rodgers-Alston said.
Didn't Advanta use to be a major player in supporting other events in and around Philadelphia?

Montgomery County has always provided a third to half of Route 311's annual $131,200 cost. But without corporate sponsors, Bagley said, the county cannot go it alone.

"Prudential was our last partner to pull out this year. We have no partners, and the county cannot afford to continue."

Facing a $70 million deficit in its $920 million fiscal 2005 operating budget, SEPTA cannot assume responsibility for the Route 311, John McGee, director of revenue and ridership for the transit agency, said.
Oh, so it's back to $70 million instead of $62 million?

Earlier this month, SEPTA circulated flyers on the buses warning that the "route will discontinue operations after August 31st." While the bus route is in trouble, that notice was misleading, SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker said yesterday.

"It could have been better written," Whitaker said. "At this point, there is no date for service to be discontinued."
Put this one in the "no s**t" column for SEPTA's Ministry of Mis-Information...
Instead, Montgomery County is continuing talks with potential sponsors. Before
it can end the route, SEPTA will have to hold a public hearing and ask its board
of directors for permission to cut service, possibly in late October, Whitaker

I was under the impression that the 311 could've been discontinued without a hearing as a result of a prior hearing, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

If the Route 311 disappears, Marnisha Fuller would face a half-mile hike up Computer Drive from the nearest stop on SEPTA's Route 310 bus. "I can do it if the weather is not bad," said the working mother from Willow Grove who earns $11 an hour as a medical receptionist.

Like the LUCY bus operating in University City, the Commonwealth Breeze is provided by SEPTA as a contract service. Under this arrangement, its drivers earn about a third of what veteran SEPTA drivers employed under the transit agency's agreement with Transport Workers Union Local 234 get.

For example, Route 311 driver Tanya Dickerson, 37, said she works for $8.89 an hour. While she could still drive on other SEPTA contract routes, Dickerson said, the possible demise of the Route 311 had helped persuade her to leave that low wage behind and go back to driving a school bus.

"I cannot prepare for the future with an income like this," Dickerson said. "This
is the kind of salary a teenager makes."

One would think that some of the part-timers would be able to apply for full-time slots in the city. Then again, I'm surprised that some school bus companies or school districts are paying that much higher than the $8.89 hourly wage at TPC/Germantown.

By the way, about the only SEPTA contract routes left operating out of Germantown are the 310/Horsham Breeze, 316/LUCY, and the Cornwells Heights shuttle.

If the Route 311 ends, Ricks hopes to carpool with coworkers, who can pick her up at the Willow Grove Park mall bus stop. Or she hopes to depend on her future father-in-law for the occasional ride. At worst, she said, a taxi ride from the mall costs $10 each way.

"This is going to be extremely stressful," Ricks said. "Luckily, I have good friends."
No kidding...

Meanwhile, let's take a trip on the way-back machine to the October 23, 2003 Norristown Times-Herald article on a candidate's forum in which Montgomery County Commissioner and SEPTA Board member Thomas Jay Ellis made these remarks:
Noting that Ellis was one of the county's two representatives on the SEPTA Board, (then-Democratic Commissioner candidate Frank X.) Custer said he had to question Ellis' commitment to public transportation since he did not attend any of SEPTA's area public hearings earlier this year on proposed service cutbacks.

Ellis responded that it was because of his championing of the R6 Norristown commuter rail line that there were no service cutbacks on that service. Since he was appointed to the board, Ellis said, there have been no service cutbacks in the county. Times-Herald, 10/23/03

Well, Tommy, I guess some records are meant to be broken, eh?

Also bear in mind that 311's service area just so happens to be in the district of fellow SEPTA Board member/State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-12).

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