Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exposition, held in the summer of 1926, was a dismal failure. Part of the blame goes to the rainy weather, but an even bigger problem was the number of unfinished exhibits on opening day. One month after the May opening, only 65 percent of the exhibits were up and running. Sewer, water, and electrical lines were still being installed as reporters sketched out their bad reviews. Another issue was location: rather than choosing the centrally located Fairmount Park, where the 1876 Centennial Exposition was held, the Sesquicentennial planners picked the relatively isolated Navy Yard as the site for 250 pavilions and a chain of lakes, lagoons, and landscaped gardens, at a cost of $26 million (more than $455 million in today’s dollars).

Similarly poor planning now threatens to ruin another Philadelphia celebration. This time, it’s the Semiquincentennial—the nation’s 250th birthday—which will take place in 2026, when Philadelphia will host five matches of the FIFA World Cup, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, several games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and a Semiquincentennial festival with an eye to attracting international tourists. The difficulty this time, however, won’t be a hard-to-reach location like the Navy Yard but a broken public transportation system.

These events are two years away, so there might be time to fix what transit-taking Philadelphians now experience daily, especially on the Market-Frankford Line, where trains periodically break down because of equipment failure or stop between stations for reasons almost never explained to passengers. A typical scenario: a crowded train departs City Hall Station en route to the Frankford Transportation Center but experiences difficulties as it leaves the area of Old City or 2nd Street. The subway engineers relay the information to passengers through a muddled intercom system, made worse by their tendency to mumble their words or talk too fast, leaving riders confused.

Seasoned inner-city travelers are used to these interruptions and breakdowns. They get out of their seats and walk onto the station platform to wait for another train. In worst-case scenarios, they wait for shuttle buses at street level, where a barely controlled pandemonium ensues as passengers compete for available seats.

Indeed, Philadelphia’s bus system is hardly more efficient. Unannounced, last-minute route changes leave many riders stranded at bus stops. Some buses just don’t show up, and detours have become mundane, causing many passengers to quit waiting and walk to their destinations. One senior citizen told me that, though he has a free SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) senior pass for trains and buses, he rarely gets to use it because in many cases the buses never come. “It’s worthless half the time,” he said, showing me the card with his photo on the upper left-hand corner. He walks a lot.

Matters are even worse on SEPTA’s Regional Rail lines, though the concerns there mostly aren’t caused by mechanical failures or trains that don’t show up but by trains scheduled at one- or two-hour intervals, especially on weekends. These long gaps are a carryover from the 2020 lockdown, when train schedules were reformatted to reflect the fear of Covid contagion. While some train routes have returned to pre-lockdown timetables, many weekend schedules still have two-hour waits between trains. Yet another lockdown-inspired reconfiguration compounds the trouble: the tyranny of consolidation has reduced the number of exits and entrances to Regional Rail Stations like Suburban and Jefferson University, often forcing travelers to “go the long way” to find an entrance or exit. Crucial extra minutes spent trying to find the single “new” entrance to Jefferson Station often means missing a train. In many cases, the most convenient entrances and exits have been permanently blocked.

Imagine Semiquincentennial visitors to Philadelphia encountering this transportation quagmire. Just six years ago, I would see Mennonite and Amish riders on SEPTA going back and forth to the Reading Terminal Market, where many run fresh produce stands. Today, such sightings are rare. The condition of the trains may have something to do with this: sleeping homeless people take up multiple seats and hawkers of shoplifted grocery items walk from car to car. The Market-Frankford is notorious as the city’s freak show.

According to SEPTA, ridership on buses and subways is up to 95 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, but Regional Rail has recovered only 57 percent. Regional Rail’s lag has been attributed to suburbanites working from home or to staggered train schedules discouraging riders. SEPTA has added trains for daily commuters but has given little thought until recently to evenings and weekends. SEPTA’s director of media relations, Andrew Busch, stated that the agency’s reduced service on Regional Rail lines has to do not only with diminished ridership but also with a shortage of engineers—itself the result of a lockdown-inspired hiring freeze. SEPTA typically budgets for 213 engineers but currently employs only 185. Engineer training takes about a year. 

Busch sees the value in getting weekend and evening trains back on a regular schedule, a goal that fits with Mayor Cherelle Parker’s plan to revitalize downtown by getting people to come back to the city, whether for work or for entertainment. “We definitely want to have more of those for people,” Busch said, of weekend commuters into the city. “We’ve started working on that specifically on Regional Rail,” he told the Chestnut Hill Local.

SEPTA’s big issue is what to do when federal recovery funds run out in 2025, just a year before the Semiquincentennial. In February 2024, the Federal Transit Authority presented a check for $317 million to SEPTA to replace antiquated cars on the Market-Frankford Line. “These modern cars will have greater capacity, and their reliability will make our SEPTA future ready to meet the needs of this region,” SEPTA general manager and CEO Leslie Richards said.

New cars alone won’t mean much if the system itself is failing. The little things that daily riders see on buses and trains add up after a while—such as the many turnstile jumpers, or the all-too-frequent passengers who board buses claiming to have no money and get a free pass from the driver. Sometimes, large groups of middle school and high school students intimidate bus drivers, who aren’t allowed to eject riders for nonpayment. Chronically mismanaged, SEPTA must somehow secure an additional $240 million in federal funding before pandemic money dries up in July, or officials say that the agency will have to impose severe service cuts. Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman warns that this will create a downward spiral leading to “the collapse of SEPTA.” Fetterman was joined by his Senate colleague Bob Casey and multiple congressional representatives for Philadelphia in asking Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to provide SEPTA with more federal funds.

It was mostly thoughtless planning that ruined Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial celebration in 1926. A century later, it’s poor management. Given SEPTA’s track record, it’s easy to imagine the agency squandering still more federal largesse with bad decision-making and ineffective leadership. If Philadelphia’s Semiquincentennial plans depend on SEPTA’s future, then visitors for the nation’s 250th birthday celebration might be in for a bumpy ride.

Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images


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