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March 31, 2023

Philly mayor's race 2023: The candidates discuss the Sixers arena, improving SEPTA and cleaning up trash

Those vying for Philadelphia's highest office were invited to share their thoughts and solutions; these are the responses we received

2023 Election Mayoral Race
mayor candidates septa Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

SEPTA's ridership continues to lag behind pre-pandemic levels. Philadelphia's candidates for mayor were asked what they'd do to encourage people to return to public transportation, along with their ideas to rid the city of litter and trash and what they think about the Sixers' plans for an arena in Chinatown.

Trains and trash may not be the sexiest campaign topics, but they're ones that affect almost everyone in Philadelphia.

Compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer Philadelphians are riding the region's public transit system, still. SEPTA ridership fell 90% in the spring of 2020 when stay-at-home orders were first enacted, and it's still struggling to reach 50% of pre-pandemic levels, according to 2022 ridership data. Some of the decline now can be attributed to remote work and hybrid office schedules seemingly being here to stay, but former passengers also cite safety and cleanliness concerns.

It remains to be seen what this means for SEPTA, longterm, and what a public transit system operating at a fraction of its pre-pandemic service levels will mean for the future of the city and projects like the controversial proposed 76ers arena at 10th and Market streets, which, if built, will depend of people getting to Center City via train and subway lines.

But it's not just the trains that need cleaning. Littering was on the rise pre-pandemic, but the problem has been exacerbated by illegal dumping — an issue so rampant, the Streets Department has started prosecuting offenders in civil court, levying penalties greater than $10,000.

PhillyVoice asked the candidates running in the May 16 primary elections for mayor, via email, what they would do to fix persistent SEPTA and Streets Department issues and to settle the ongoing debate about the Sixers arena. Six candidates for mayor in the May 16 primary elections shared their solutions with PhillyVoice via email, including David Oh, the former councilmember at-large who is the lone candidate on the Republican ballot.

Warren Bloom, Amen Brown, Jeff Brown, James DeLeon, Cherelle Parker and Delscia Gray did not respond to requests to participate, but this article will be updated if any of these candidates opt to submit answers to our questions. (Editor's Note: Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Derek Green dropped out of the mayoral race after this questionnaire was published. The candidates' responses were lightly edited only for style and formatting.)

SEPTA ridership has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Do you have a plan to boost it? 

ALLAN DOMB: This is an issue of cost as much as convenience and safety. I will work with SEPTA and appoint board members who will be committed to improving services generally, but also "right sizing" it for commuters. Philadelphia stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues if workers do not return and we are unable to grow our jobs base sufficiently. 

Additionally, as part of my community safety program, I pledged to deploy officers at highly trafficked stops during peak times. As mayor, I will support programs and policies that make SEPTA more affordable for city employees and commuters.

DEREK GREEN: SEPTA has become an unsafe and unreliable source of transportation in the eyes of many Philadelphians. People are not comfortable sending their children to school on SEPTA because they’re concerned about potential violence or exposure to drugs. The conditions of SEPTA facilities have contributed to these issues for the same reason that blight and deteriorating infrastructure invites crime in our neighborhoods. Therefore, people are relying on cars for transportation because they feel they have no other option. Under a Green administration, I am committed to addressing these concerns around SEPTA, with the ultimate goal of increasing ridership and reducing congestion.

HELEN GYMSEPTA ridership was declining long before the start of COVID. Those declines accelerated during the height of COVID-19 restrictions. While transit services have been restored to 89% of pre-pandemic levels, ridership has recovered to only 57%, which represent more than 550,000 daily riders. Those riders are overwhelmingly city residents and 61% of those riders live in households that earn less than $50,000/year. For Philadelphia residents living below the poverty line, the top obstacle to employment is transportation, more than double those who report child care or criminal history. Philadelphia cannot be a thriving city without a successful SEPTA. 

Even though the city doesn’t operate SEPTA, it can meaningfully influence SEPTA’s success through $100 million-plus annual contribution of city taxpayer funds, our board seats, executive involvement in planning, and how we operate city streets. 

In multiple surveys SEPTA riders are clear about their needs: a safe, clean, and affordable system that provides frequent and reliable services. A Gym administration should start at the top, ensuring that city appointees to the SEPTA Board are SEPTA riders and transportation experts. Together with multiple city departments here’s how to deliver on those rider demands: 

Safe and Clean
• Ensure cleaning of every Market-Frankford and Broad Street Line at the end of every run 
• Prioritize street lighting improvements around bus stops and SEPTA stations
• Expand SEPTA’s SCOPE program
• Increase foot patrols by Philadelphia police around SEPTA stations and by SEPTA police and safety ambassadors in stations and on vehicles
• Coordinate closely with school district to improve use of SEPTA by students at school dismissal times 
• Renovate City Hall Station, the crossroads of the system 

Affordable System with Frequent Service 
• Implement 8 priority bus corridors from the city’s Strategic Transit Plan
• Equalize the fares between SEPTA Buses and Regional Rail in North, West, and Southwest Philadelphia, provide $2 fares to 15 Regional Rail Stations

DAVID OHSEPTA is perceived to be dirty, dangerous and unpleasant. In order to increase public transportation use, riders will need to see that the vehicles, platforms and stations are clean, safe and free of harassment. I will withhold the city's financial contribution to SEPTA unless it stops using Philadelphia's subway system as a shelter and starts improving its system here by upgrading its technology and deploying Transit Police throughout its system. All rules and laws must be actively enforced. Continuing problems must be addressed and resolved, such as fare jumping, smoking, drug use, inappropriate use of facilities and space. Customer service must be improved. After that, we can help SEPTA increase its ridership by coordinating with it for discounted fares for major events in Philadelphia or free rides during low-travel time periods.

MARIA QUIÑONES SÁNCHEZClean, reliable, and affordable public transportation is critical to a healthy city. Transit must be safe and clean so riders will use it. I want to grow our population to 2 million, our transit system is critical to that goal. 

While SEPTA is a regional authority, and Philadelphia is structurally outnumbered on its governing board, the mayor must be a strong advocate for transit and transit riders. As councilmember, I worked closely with SEPTA and SEPTA police to address issues related to the 10 El stops in my district. As mayor, I will direct our departments to prioritize safety, infrastructure, and cleanliness around transit stops to provide a welcoming and safe environment for riders. I believe it is appropriate to reexamine our bus routes, particularly regarding stop frequency, in order to improve efficiency and reduce the infrastructure and service demands of bus stops very close together, each with trash cans that need to be emptied and cleaned. We should expand bus-only lanes and use bus priority signals to improve the flow of traffic and make buses a more attractive option.

We must also address the ongoing issues related to substance use and antisocial behavior on transit. Without just arresting and incarcerating, we must improve the protocol for cleaning trains and preventing them from becoming mobile encampments. We can create connectivity with service providers and opportunities to receive help and treatment. Additionally, we can create systems for the unhoused population to bring them off of transit, such as storage lockers and shower facilities, located within or close to health care facilities where they can receive wound care and other needed treatment, as well. 

Finally, I believe we should expand the use of transit oriented development, which I pioneered in the 7th Council District, citywide. Building more diverse, mixed-income housing density near transit stops will get more people back on transit.

REBECCA RHYNHART: SEPTA ridership post-pandemic has not recovered as people are not commuting to Center City like they had before the pandemic. Additionally, safety and cleanliness issues are keeping people from using SEPTA. As mayor, I will take steps to bring the workforce back downtown for at least several days a week. I will require city employees to come to the office at least two days per week; right now the mayor has made no such requirement. This would set the right tone for having all businesses bring workers back a few days a week which will increase SEPTA ridership. 

As mayor, I will make our city safe, which will encourage SEPTA ridership. Much of the cleanliness and safety issues on SEPTA are a spillover from issues happening in our neighborhoods and on our streets. Tackling our biggest issues such as the opioid crisis and gun violence will make our public transportation system safer. My plan to tackle the opioid crisis here and my plan to make our neighborhoods safer can be found on my website at 

SEPTA is in the midst of a complete redesign which has the potential to make our system more efficient and effective. As mayor, I will advocate to ensure that any changes SEPTA makes are done with the best interest of our residents in mind.

Do you support the proposal for the 76ers arena in Chinatown? 

ALLAN DOMB: I support the concept and want to see conversations continue. We need to redevelop East Market, which we have made a goal but never realized. An arena would be good for economic development and public safety in the Market East area. But we need to make sure it’s done right, and that we engage the neighborhoods and address concerns they may have. I also support the newly announced cap of 676 to reconnect Chinatown.

DEREK GREEN: I have spoken to many members of the community in Chinatown regarding this project – some who are open to the idea and others who are vehemently opposed. What I have not seen are proposals to address the concerns of community members, which is going to be essential to my ultimate stance on the project. In particular, I have serious concerns regarding the lack of dialogue around SEPTA investments that I consider necessary if we are going to build a sports complex in the middle of Chinatown. Additionally, how will seniors benefit from additional housing (versus an escalation of rental costs and housing prices) and how will small business owners benefit from this development? In short, there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered before I will be in a position to take a firm stance one way or the other.

HELEN GYM:  The proposed arena will not open its doors until 2032 at the earliest. I don’t intend to wait for a revitalized Market East that goes from City Hall to the river. Whatever deal happens for the Sixers, it’s incredibly important that our city benefits. We can strengthen small businesses up and down Market Street right now to bring life back to this critical downtown corridor. Making Market East the vibrant corridor it must be will be my focus as mayor.

DAVID OH: I have no information about what the arena is supposed to be, exactly. I don't understand how people in leadership positions can support or oppose the arena without information. Chinatown's problems predate the proposed arena. Will this area help or hurt Chinatown? Will it help or hurt the other surrounding areas? Will it benefit the city as a whole or will it create problems? I'd like to see the architectural design, traffic study, parking study, public transportation study, financing, and other documentation to understand if the arena is viable, what support the arena would need from the city, how it will operate and impact its neighbors. To my knowledge, the Sixers and their developers have not provided any documentation regarding the proposed project. As mayor, I would demand to see the documentation because the disruption and anxiety caused by the proposed arena is detrimental to the Chinatown community and the city as a whole. After reviewing the plans and documents, I can make a decision whether I support it or not.

MARIA QUIÑONES SÁNCHEZ: We know the tremendous importance of Chinatown to Philadelphia – for the community and for our economy. The 76ers need to make their case for how an arena would enhance Chinatown and Market Street East. We need a plan for Market Street between Eighth and 13th but nothing that I’ve heard so far, or seen in the data from other cities, convinces me that an arena is the best option. I am glad there is a long runway to have this conversation. I look forward to hearing from residents and developers about how they can both coexist and protect Chinatown.

REBECCA RHYNHART: A project of this magnitude needs to be seriously considered given the jobs that it would create, and as mayor, I would give it serious consideration. However, there are many unanswered questions such as traffic and impact to the neighborhood. The neighborhood must feel comfortable for any development project to move forward. As mayor, I would convene the 76ers and Chinatown residents to discuss the project, the concerns, and chart the best path forward for our city.

Many residents complain that littering has gotten out of control. How will you reduce it? 

ALLAN DOMB: My top environmental priority as mayor will be to ensure that Philadelphia becomes a city that is cleaner and safer, through regular street and lot cleaning. In my first 100 days as mayor, I will quickly clean all vacant and abandoned lots, and begin the process of converting some into parks, community gardens and well-maintained green spaces, which have proved to reduce violent crime, improve mental health and uplift the surrounding community. 

Additionally, we must properly handle the waste we create and dramatically increase recycling. I want to reduce the amount of recycled materials that end up in landfills or worse, being incinerated. My goal is to double the amount of material that is recycled every year. I will also support full funding for the city’s parks, rec centers, pools and programs to increase the planting and maintenance of our tree canopy.

DEREK GREEN: The easy response to this question would be to say that we need to put more money behind addressing litter and illegal dumping, but I believe this is an issue that needs to start with a culture shift in our city. We cannot curb waste if the community is not also invested in this goal, as well. I would use my position as mayor to communicate the importance this issue has in my administration and how we should take pride in keeping our neighborhoods safe and clean. Additionally, I will work to educate the public that by changing behavior — by increasing recycling and reducing waste — we can save money as a city and invest more tax dollars into quality of life improvements that will enhance Philadelphia.

HELEN GYM:  Expanding street cleaning and coordinating it with trash collection will immediately reduce the litter that is generated by improper storage of trash and the challenges of properly handling that trash. We need to pilot alternative means of collection that are sensitive to neighborhood context including household bin based collection. 

The Streets and Commerce departments need to support expanded litter bin options in business improvement districts and along commercial corridors. Other community based initiatives to address litter while not expected to replace city services should be supported to supplement the cities efforts. It’s also time for a city department to be solely focused on sanitation and clean streets. I’d split the Streets Department into two separate departments, one focused on transportation and one focused on sanitation. 

At our parks we need to ensure that we have the proper trash cans to accommodate the demands of park visitors and operations to ensure those cans are properly maintained. Illegal dumping requires both aggressive cleaning efforts and renewed emphasis on enforcement with upgraded cameras at dumping hot spots. I support expanded litter bin options in business improvement districts and along commercial corridors.

DAVID OH: I would enforce littering laws through the police and Philadelphia Parking Authority. Citations will be issued for littering and the fines will be collected. It works. In New York, the city started fining people for crossing in the middle of the street. In a short time, people stopped crossing in the middle of the street.

MARIA QUIÑONES SÁNCHEZ: When I took office and reviewed my data sets, the 7th Council District had the highest litter index in the city. It also had the fewest number of public trash cans. We need to place and adequately service public trash cans to prevent litter, particularly around transit stops and other areas where people congregate. To address illegal dumping, I believe we must invest in more cameras at known dumping locations, so we can ticket and fine offenders. Research has shown that cameras combined with enforcement can meaningfully change behavior regarding illegal dumping.

Additionally, as part of the Restore Kensington plan I proposed a series of aggressive and proactive cleaning measures which I believe should be implemented in areas of great need, including twice-weekly trash pickup, street sweeping and washing, and community dumpster availability. We must also improve the quality of our trash pickup by providing standardized, lidded trash and recycling containers, coordinated with an updated vehicle fleet. Making these changes will require significant investment in our Streets Department workforce and realignment of salaries to address the historically inadequate compensation so we can attract and retain workers. These are critical jobs and they should be family-sustaining jobs.

REBECCA RHYNHART: Philadelphia continues to be the only major city without regular citywide street sweeping. This must change and as mayor, I will implement citywide street cleaning. We can not let the cleanliness of our streets decline because residents will not move their cars. Other municipalities have managed to have regular street sweeping and mitigate residents' concerns about parking. We can and will do the same.

In addition, under my administration we will look at the best practices from other cities to determine what can be adopted here in Philadelphia. Whether it's containerized trash bins, like those being piloted in New York City or trash trucks with automated loading arms, there are more efficient ways for our city to pickup and manage trash. By utilizing more efficient means of trash collection, we can improve on-time trash collection in neighborhoods throughout our city. Trash pickup delays contribute to our litter problem and to our residents' dissatisfaction with city services. With investments in technology we can better examine the effectiveness of our trash collection routes and more responsively adjust to trends such as increased tonnage to minimize delays. As controller, my office reviewed the sanitation department’s on time trash pickup and found that on-time pickup correlated to the neighborhood where you lived. This is simply unfair and under my administration will be directly addressed. Improving our trash pickup and moving to a more efficient model will allow the city to provide more service to our residents.
There are far too few trash cans that are publicly available, especially when you leave the greater Center City area.

As we explore investing in waste removal technology and implementing new procedures to pick up trash more efficiently we should shift resources to improve the way our city recycles and live up to the industry standard for recycling. Once we raise the standard of our recycling we should explore how our city can add compost as a third type of residential waste removal. In the interim, my administration will look to expand our current network of community compost centers and work to educate our residents on the importance of composting as well as how they can participate.

The task of moving our city to a waste-free future will take a coordinated effort from multiple departments, the private sector, community groups and nonprofits. In order to manage this effort I will reestablish the Zero Waste and Litter cabinet to focus on making our city cleaner and greener.

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