Exactly nine weeks before the Democratic primary, the five major candidates in what still appears to be a wide-open race for mayor, met as part of a March 6 forum at the Union League sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.
The contestants largely avoided swipes at each other, consistent with the lack of proverbial blows thrown at similar forums. Instead, each candidate had the chance to lay out his approach to issues such as SEPTA's perennial fiscal crisis; scandal-fueled voter distrust of city government; and various approaches to stemming the recent tide of violent crime.
Moderator Larry Kane, a veteran broadcaster, asked U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D-District 1), U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-District 2), businessman Tom Knox, former City Councilman Michael Nutter and State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-District 203) why SEPTA seems to constantly be in a fiscal crisis?
"The regional rail, and the buses and subways, every time I ride them, they're always packed. Yet every year we have the threat of a strike," noted Kane.
Nutter responded that SEPTA and other mass-transit systems across Pennsylvania do not have a guaranteed funding source from Harrisburg, and must ask the state annually to help meet budget shortfalls. To that end, Evans said that he favors amending the state constitution to mandate a permanent funding source.
Brady called for the re-establishment of a mayoral office on transportation and a reshuffling of the SEPTA board; currently, two of 15 members are appointed by the city.
Fattah said that he supports Gov. Ed Rendell's plan to lease the Pennsylvania turnpike, and put a tax on oil companies that do business in the state to raise more than than $1 billion to go toward public transportation and the upkeep of state roads.
Knox argued that SEPTA's problem is that it hasn't modernized. He called for the addition of a new Rapid Bus Transit system. Popular in several cities, including Denver, an RBT is a kind of train line without tracks, using larger buses that could move people on major thoroughfares, such as Roosevelt and Columbus boulevards.