By Matt Petrillo

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The CEO of SEPTA answered some pointed questions over safety concerns during a budget hearing with Philadelphia City Council on Tuesday. SEPTA’s CEO testified to what CBS3 reported last month that the transit agency has dozens of vacancies in its police department as safety continues to be a major issue for riders.

As SEPTA works to get ridership to pre-pandemic levels, those who use the transit system sometimes feel worried about their safety.

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“You gotta be concerned if someone’s going to do something to you. I don’t take my kids on SEPTA at all,” rider Wadira Ryan said.

“People have to feel safe to come back on our system,” SEPTA CEO Leslie Richards said.

Richards promised safety improvements to city council during a virtual budget hearing Tuesday. That includes a new unit, which SEPTA calls “outreach specialists.”

“…who will be on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines to assist customers and alert police to incidents,” Richards said.

But the transit agency’s police union believes SEPTA’s priority should be hiring more police officers instead of the new outreach specialists.

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“That sounds great in theory to have people to report more crime but no one has been able to still answer the question, ‘who’s to respond to these crimes, regarding police personnel?'” Troy Parham, with SEPTA Transit Police union, said.

The announcement of hiring 88 outreach specialists comes as the transit agency struggles to hire transit police officers.

Eyewitness News was the first to report last month SEPTA’s police department has 50 vacancies. We asked the SEPTA police chief why there are so many vacancies.

“The money is there so it’s not an issue of money,” SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel said.

Still, SEPTA’s pay is comparatively low and is an issue, according to councilmember David Oh.

“I want to see competitive salaries. Don’t be the lowest-paid police agency in the region,” Oh said.

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SEPTA officials say they’re meeting with the police union this week to discuss issues.