It’s a pivotal time for SEPTA. Philadelphia’s transit authority is in the process of rolling out the Key, a massive new payment system. It’s prepping for the largest event in Philadelphia history. And it’s preparing for years’ worth of improvements to make the look, feel and operation of SEPTA better and more open.
Overseeing all of this has been SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey who, after being with SEPTA since 1982, announced he will retire Sept. 30. Billy Penn spoke with Casey about how he’s moved SEPTA forward, his 34 years there, and how he’s laid the tracks for the transit authority to keep changing. Here’s our conversation (which has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity):
Let’s talk about some of your priorities as GM. There have been efforts over the past few years to appear more approachable. SEPTA is more active on social media, and the Dude It’s Rude campaign comes to mind. Can you talk about those communications efforts?
Well it’s not in the last couple years. It started since I became GM and my initial focus was to rebuild relationships with the customer. My first action to do that was to point a direct report to head that effort in customer service. We’ve been working on those efforts the last seven and a half years, trying to be more transparent as an organization, trying to be more understanding, and trying to deliver a better service. So that whole thing, it wasn’t just customer service. They were developing a lot of programs and those efforts were throughout the authority.
You’re probably constantly hearing people ask when SEPTA might do this or that, why don’t we extend the Broad Street Line, why don’t we have a line on Roosevelt, etc. Are there any of those projects you would actually do or would have prioritized if SEPTA had the funding to do it?
I think all of the above. I certainly want to extend the Norristown line into King of Prussia. We’ll have heavy demand on that, and I certainly would like to extend the Broad Street Line into the Navy Yard. Just from a developmental standpoint, both of those things are very expensive projects and funds would have to come from the feds. And even if it did qualify, 50 percent of funding would have to come from locals anyway.
You have to realize: We were so cash starved on the capital program for so many years and had federal mandates including Positive Train Control, and that project alone is costing over $300 million.
We were so starved for so many years and, on top of that, the federal mandates put us in a bind. Act 89 from the state means a lot of projects are coming down in three to five years that will make a big difference, not the least of which are new rail cars to alleviate capacity problems on Regional Rail and eliminate equipment problems we’re having out there. I would love to go to half hour service and increase more demand on the Regional Rail.
Look downtown at the City Hall station. That will be a big difference in downtown Philadelphia. Also, I don’t think people understand the concourses downtown — people assume they’re SEPTA concourses — they are not owned by SEPTA. It was always the city of Philadelphia’s property. We always got blamed for it. We decided under the lease agreement to take over responsibility for that and the next three to four years will see a big capital improvement project to renovate the underground concourses. That will change the perception of SEPTA and the city of Philadelphia.
Speaking of improvements. It doesn’t sound like SEPTA Key is going to launch before you go. Are you happy with how the development of SEPTA Key has gone?
No. Quite frankly, no. I wish it was implemented. But we are in testing now and are in the process of going through friendly testing. We want to roll it out later on this calendar year. The bottom line is that we want to get it right. We want to get it right. We have a vendor on board, and you have to realize a lot of these projects contracts are with outside companies that are actually doing the work. It’s federal dollars, and we have to watch our dollars. We have to make sure the system we’re paying for is actually being delivered.
What have you put in place to keep up the momentum of the last five years of improvements?
The bottom line is we have a strong staff and I think I consider myself a very selfish manager. I always surround myself with talented people who will do the job, make my life easier and in some cases they’re a lot smarter than I am. That staff will continue, and I think the people, the AGM’s, I think they saw the difference. The way we were 10 years ago, and the way we are now. And some of the programs we put in place, transparency, trying to be more approachable, and they see the benefit of that.
Has a successor been named yet?
No successor yet, but I expect them to do something in September.
Let’s talk about the Papal visit. There are still a lot of Regional Rail tickets left. Are you confident in how SEPTA planned for this?
The challenge that we had is how to increase capacity on primarily our rail system. When you’re faced with upwards of 1.5 million people, it’s a daunting task for us. And what we did is we have a plan to limit the number of stops, but by doing that, we increase capacity on the system to two and sometimes three times what we normally could carry. So that was the whole thought behind it.
And quite frankly, we think it’s a very good plan and would stand the test of time. The problem we have is that the demand isn’t there right now, but I can tell you now if we went back and said, ‘we want to run regular service,’ we would be sold out. I think right now, we have allowed more people to get on the system and, like I said, it’s still a challenge, and we think the plan we put together is the most effective plan.
In round numbers, Saturday’s passes are little over 50,000. Sunday is 60,000. And that’s over a short period of time. So we’re running that over a five-hour period. On a normal weekday, that’s over an 18-hour period and we bring in, at the most, 65,000. Even if we did carry the people and went back to the old system, we still have a situation at the end of the event where everyone will have a mass exit out of the city of Philadelphia, and by stopping at every station, I can’t get a quick turnaround on that train. So the exodus, if you will, would be extremely long and there would be poor service. So either way, what we have is the way to go.
Plus, you’re talking about security at those stations. This was well thought out. Some people are disappointed. But this was well thought out.
Throughout your time at SEPTA, what are you most proud of accomplishing?
I’m most proud of our employees. I rolled out this concept of customer service to our employees, the pride of the organization, and I think the employees have really adapted to that. The number of accommodations have doubled and tripled. It’s unbelievable how customers have seen the difference, and I’m really proud of that and I’m really proud of how our employees have responded to some of the programs we have implemented. The whole morale of the company has improved as a result of that.
This question comes from someone on Twitter who was curious: What’s your personal favorite SEPTA route?
Well I’m a Regional Rail rider, but as far as the service, the work horses of our system are the Broad Street Line and the Market Frankford Line, and those systems are probably the favorite. They carry the most people, they’re the most efficient, most effective, most reliable.
So you’ve been at SEPTA for more than three decades. What’s next for you? Any big plans?
No big plans at this point. I just want to unwind, relax, spend some time with the family and decide what’s next.
Anything else you want to add?
The other thing I’m really proud of is when you look at where we were, is the number of people taking the system, we have record ridership. We carry more people on Regional Rail and that’s all organic. More people are filling the seats and, in addition to that, in 2012 we actually set a 24-year record in ridership. So more and more people are taking SEPTA and I really think with capital improvements, we’ll be adding additional capacity on the Regional Rail, improving reliability. That will make it more attractive to people. Our future, thanks to Act 89, the future for SEPTA is extremely bright.