Exit Interview: Outgoing SEPTA GM Joe Casey (Long Version)

After 34 years at SEPTA, the last (nearly) eight as General Manager, Joe Casey officially retired on September 30th. Not that he’s going anywhere far: Casey is just moving down the hall for now, staying on as a consultant through next year’s Democratic National Convention.

And after that? Casey doesn’t know for sure what’s next, but he knows it’ll have to be around here. “I’m a Philadelphian,” he told PlanPhilly during an exit interview on his tenure as SEPTA’s GM, how the authority has changed over the last three decades and what frustrated him most about running the nation’s sixth largest transportation agency.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PlanPhilly: What was SEPTA like when you first started here back in 1982?

Joe Casey: I would say it was a bureaucracy. There was a lot of things being done the old fashioned way. The condition of our stations were [sic] less than nice. I think the reputation of SEPTA was not necessarily at the high point. And back then, there was a lot of—even at the Board level—a lot of dispute and arguments between the various representatives on the board. So I don’t think it was necessarily everyone rowing in the same direction, if you will.

And I think that’s all well documented.

PP: When did that change?

JC: The month before I became GM.

I think the Board relationship really improved under Chairman Deon. That was the late 90’s – the Board became a lot more cohesive. Regarding the improvement of the stations: That was the late 90s, early 2000s, when we did a lot of the work on the Market Frankford Line and the Broad Street stations. I think that’s been going on for a number of years.

PP: How has the relationship between the counties and the city changed?

JC: I think since I’ve been involved, and probably a number of years before that, they’ve been operating more from a regional perspective. Not at their own issues, but looking at SEPTA in its entirety and what’s good for SEPTA. Even in finance, capital programs, we’ve always been conscious of—number 1—addressing the needs, and—number 2—that all the counties having a certain amount of work, if you will, in terms of improvements to the system.

PP: Forbes listed SEPTA as one of the best employers, 33rd overall. SEPTA was the 2nd government agency on the list; only the New York City Fire Department beat you, but kids grow up saying they want to be a fireman. I don’t think kids dream of replacing catenary wires.  You were top in Philly region—

JC: It’s not top in Philly, its top in Pennsylvania. And number three in transportation, Behind Southwest and Jet Blue – not bad company.

PP: So, you’re familiar with the list?

JC: Yeah, I did look that the list.

PP: My question, then, is: How? SEPTA takes a LOT of grief whenever a bus is delayed or a train is late. How do you have happy employees when people constantly berate them?

JC: From my perspective, I appreciate every employee that works here. I appreciate what they do: from my CFO to head of government affairs to my operators to the ones picking up trash for customers. I appreciate everyone and their commitment to serving the people in this region. I think my employees know that. We have an employee recognition program for going above and beyond. It goes a long way.

When I rolled out the customer service division – we needed to treat customers better. I can’t ask my employees to do it unless I treat them with the same level of respect and concern. And we’ve been doing that over the last eight years.

I can tell you a story. When I first became GM, I went to Callowhill district. One of the operators pulled me aside, said ‘you’re the new GM? ‘I said yes. He then showed me the facilities they had to use on a daily basis, [which were not in good shape].

I said you’re right. We need to fix this. We had an engineer out there a month later, and a month later started breaking ground on fixing facilities. I got a card from all those operators there thanking me.

Had the same thing with capital process. We went around, fixing facilities for our employees. You gotta realize they don’t just come in the morning and leave, they come in, have a break before going out again.

It was critical to our employees. Things like that, it helps people think better about the agency they work for.

SEPTA Director of Media Relations Jerri Williams: Tell them about the shirts.

JC: Years ago, people [employees], when they ride the bus or whatever, they didn’t want to be associated with the agency. I made it a point [to say], you’re going to wear the shirt and wear them proudly. It wasn’t a dictate, it evolved over a number of years and now you see it. Our employees wear the shirts, they’re proud to be associated with the agency. It didn’t happen overnight but now people are proud and absolutely satisfied.

PP: What are the biggest challenges facing SEPTA today?

JC: Listen, the smart card project, that still has to be implemented, that’s a challenge. Number 2, all these capital programs that are going on, we need to fix them. The biggest thing we need to look at is capacity. We’re busting at the seams on the Regional Rail. We need to put more cars on there; we have an order in for new Regional Rail locomotives, [and we are] purchasing coaches, [which have higher capacity than the current coaches]. But that will take a number of years. We need to keep our ridership up as best we can until we get those new cars. At the same point, we need to increase frequency on Regional Rail to address concerns.

But I keep saying Regional Rail. We need to do the same for our trolleys. We need to get new trolleys and increase frequency there, too.

You have a younger population coming into Philadelphia. They don’t want to rely on cars. They want to use public transit and transit has to be responsive to that demand.

So, capacity is a big issue but at the same time we need to improve our facilities.

PP: How do you respond to criticisms that SEPTA spends too much attention and money on Regional Rail compared to the rest of the system? Regional Rail makes up 15 percent of overall SEPTA ridership. The buses, subways, trolleys – mainly the city transit division – makes up way more in ridership.

JC: If you look at the last, I’d go back 20 years, if you look at the investments that we’ve made—we basically rebuilt the Market Frankford Line. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars. We rebuilt the stations on the Broad Street Line. And, in fact, very little has been done on the Regional Rail system.

Many of the stations on the Regional Rail line date back a century. We were constantly trying to keep the system going. It just so happens that there are a lot of the capital needs right now are on the Regional Rail system. Not to say we don’t have needs in the City Transit Division. City Hall Station needs work done and we finally have the resources to do [that work].

But there was talk about doing City Hall Station in 2000s, [but there was also] was talk in the City to restore the route 15 trolleys. So, we allocated it to that project [Route 15 trolley restoration]. But, frankly, there were needs on Regional Rail. When we have bridges falling apart, we need to fix those bridges.

And, again 50 percent of Regional Rail is in the City of Philadelphia, physically. And look at the money. Wayne junction – it’s in Philadelphia. And, again, we look at it from a regional perspective. Even those in the suburbs, it’s benefitting Philadelphia by bringing workers into Philadelphia. We look at everything regionally. We look at the budget in terms of the system as a whole.

PP: Act 89 has been huge for transportation infrastructure funding across the Commonwealth generally and for SEPTA specifically. At your last board meeting, lots of legislators there gave you credit. What did you do?

JC: Well, let me just say I didn’t make it happen. I can’t make that happen. The elected officials are those ones who decided to fund public transportations in Pennsylvania. It was their decision.

I like to say: “It’s not me, it’s we.” We brought the needs to the attention of public officials. That’s what we did. We did it numerous times. I testified at many Senate transportation committee hearings and House transportation committee hearings, just saying what our situation was. I didn’t deliver the votes. It was the many leaders in the legislature that delivered the votes.

There were numerous individuals who took it under their wing to make sure it was done. It wasn’t just transit, it was across the Commonwealth. Bridges falling down, roads needed repairs. It was a comprehensive package. It was very difficult for me to take credit for what our legislators did. It was a very difficult vote at election time, but they got it done.

PP: But they did give you credit. Why did they give you credit for making it possible for them to make those difficult votes?

JC: I think it was the credibility of SEPTA. Since becoming GM, SEPTA has certainly been more transparent in our situation our needs, just in communication with elected officials. I think we’ve done a great job of trying to keep the finances under control in numerous different ways. We’ve been very judicious in how we spent our dollars, both operating and capital. Every time we testified [at legislative hearings], they asked questions [about SEPTA’s finances] and I was very forthcoming.

We try to run this like a business. There is a requirement that transit agencies try to look for alternative means of revenues, and we have been aggressive on that end, aggressive on our costs and elected officials know that.

PP: After you were named GM, you created the Customer Service and Advocacy Division. And put it on the same footing on the org charge as things like Audits, HR, Operations, and Engineering – run by Assistant GM. Why?

JC: Well, I’m also a rider. And I have been since I was 14-years-old, taking the SEPTA system. I experience our system as a rider. What was obvious to me was that there was a disconnect between some of our employees and customers.

I used to see [complaint] letters about various aspects of SEPTA. Some were obviously justified: those about the bureaucratic agency that doesn’t care about our customers, or to the point about not understanding the customer experience.

I said: “I want to communicate to customers, let them know we understand their experience.” We had to elevate that experience not only within SEPTA, but to customers. That had to be first and foremost. I had the perfect person with Kim Heinle. We need our messages to be consistent, timely and addressing their concerns.

Some of the concerns we get, we’re not exactly responsible: downed Amtrak lines down or PECO power problems, for example. But we still need to respond.

We also needed to change the way our employees treated our customers. But for our customers, we wouldn’t be here. We had to change that attitude. I think we’ve been moderately successful in that regard. It’s front line training that everyone gets. All of our managers have a different mindset that it was 10 years ago.

PP: Pennsylvania allocates way more funding to highway funds than public transportation. Does that allocation need to shift? Do we spend too much on roads and not enough on trains and buses?

JC: It’s hard for me to say that because the needs across the Commonwealth are so vast. It’s different in the Commonwealth compared to other states because we have a mountainous region, a lot of bridges that need to be maintained and years of underfunding. If you asked [former PennDOT Secretary and highway engineer] Barry Schoch what the percentages should be, he’d probably say more on the highway side. If you asked a legislator in Carbon County, which doesn’t have extensive transit, they’ll say more on the highways. Again, we’re a Commonwealth. We have certain resources and have to act accordingly. When you looked at Act 89, the distribution was very fair to both highways and transit.

PP: You’re only 59, right?

JC: Something like that.

PP: That’s not retirement age. What’s next?

JC: We’ll see. Right now I just want to recharge my batteries and see what next. I don’t have any clear-cut plans. People have contacted me about his or that.

But I will not relocate. I won’t do that. I’m a Philadelphian. I want to stay in the area. My family is in the Philadelphia area. But we’ll see what happens.

But you’re right: it is too early to retire.

JW: I’m going to tell you wife that.

JC: Oh, no! Don’t do that.

PP: So, if Amtrak called and said, “Do for us what you did for SEPTA – balance the books.” You’d say no?

JC: I would say no.

PP: A criticism I’ve heard of transportation agencies in general is that they outsource engineering too often and don’t maintain large enough engineering departments. That, in turn, means outsourcing more work to expensive consultants, which raises costs. Any validity to that? Should SEPTA have more engineers on staff?

JC: It all depends on how you look at it. If you had a steady stream of capital dollars that you knew could come in and you could support it with engineering staff to do that work, then that’s the way to go. But when you have peaks and valleys in capital funding that doesn’t let you retain engineers for a sustained amount of time – or we can hire you this year, but not next – that doesn’t work as well. With capital funding, it being low, then you get Positive Train Control that takes capital construction off the table, or in our case Regional Rail vehicles that pushed a lot of capital projects, then you don’t need those engineers. So it all depends on the stream of federal dollars, whether you can maintain the engineers to do that work.

PP: How difficult is it to run an agency like SEPTA when Congress can’t pass stable funding?

JC: It’s extremely difficult. We’ve been very fortunate that there have been a lot of extensions to the federal funding bill, but it’s very difficult for us to enter into a major construction project or major vehicle purchase not knowing if you have the funds to pay for these things. Years ago, when we did the Market Frankford El— a $600 million project—there is no way we would have been able to tackle that without knowing where the funds were coming from. For a major project, we need that commitment on a long-term basis.

PP: There is a bill to extend the Positive Train Control deadline back 3 years. Only SEPTA, Amtrak and Metrolink are on pace to have PTC installed by the deadline. Do you support the bill?

JC: Again, this was a safety issue. However, I think the deadline was very aggressive. There was not a lot of cooperation between the government agencies regarding [radio frequency] spectrum for some of the properties to maintain. Plus not a lot of vendors were willing or able to support all these contracts in a short amount of time. So I think an extension is valid. I certainly think we would benefit from that to the extent that some of our testing might not go as planned. I think they were overly aggressive and from day one the industry pushed back saying this requirement… people would have problems implementing it.

That being said: There was a requirement out there. We [SEPTA] purchased the radio spectrum early, entered into a contract early and we intend to get it done. Unfortunately, we’re seeing some effect on Regional Rail due to the shortage of cars because they’re being outfitted with this system. So it’s causing crowding on Regional Rail on a daily basis but we’re still on target to get it done.

My concern overall: If the federal government passed a bill that came up with funding for agencies [that haven’t met the deadline], and then the people who actually implemented and took the matter of the law were shut out of that funding process because we already committed those dollars. That’s my biggest concern. You play by the rules, get it done and then funding goes to these people dragging their feet. We postponed a lot of major capital projects to meet this deadline.

PP: What non-obvious thing do you regret not being able to finish on your watch? So, not SEPTA Key.

JC: Well, from a timing standpoint, what I would have liked to do—and I think this is going to transform downtown Philadelphia—is redoing the concourse. You need to realize: the city owned the concourses, but we always get blamed. We get blamed for things that aren’t our responsibilities.

I think that’ll transform downtown Philadelphia, people will have a better appreciation for transit system. I think that underground space will be better utilized and I think that’ll be a big plus for the city of Philadelphia. I want that to be as soon as possible and we have a number of phases coming in to invest in those corridors, and I think that’s going to make a big difference.

Y’know, people always assumed we own them. Did you know we didn’t own the concourses? I bet you didn’t.

PP: Well, I did know that. But I’m also the transportation beat reporter for PlanPhilly. I’m probably I didn’t know before.

JC: And this is a frustrating part of the job. A lot of things are outside of our control. I can talk about the escalators right outside Jefferson Station – they’ve been out for a couple of months but we don’t own or maintain them. There was another across city hall, across 15th Street, we don’t own or maintain but people complain and that’s the frustrating thing as GM. That is why we took over the concourses. People assumed it was ours, criticized us for the condition and the City didn’t ever have resources to maintain it. That’s why we took over responsibility for that.

PP: What parting advice did you give to SEPTA’s new GM, Jeff Kneuppel?

JC: I’ve talked to Jeff a number of times, and I still do. From my perspective, we have a number of good employees here, a lot of talent. I said: utilize that talent. Create an atmosphere where they want to make change, they want to offer recommendations, they want to be involved in the decision-making process. I think if he does, that he’ll ultimately be successful as GM. That’s my opinion to him. I think that’s what I’ve done. I’ve allowed people to make decisions, changes. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a meeting where I said I wanted to do this, and by the end of the meeting, we’re going in a completely different direction. I don’t’ care. I don’t need authorship. As long as we’re addressing the problems, I’m happy. I hope he takes that same approach.

PP: Final question. Give me a parting gift, here, Joe. When will we get SEPTA Key?

JC: Jeff might not want me to answer [laughs]. I keep saying this calendar year, but every time I do, I [see] winces. Soon. It’s a complicated project.

It’s a project, again, you go on the outside and you hire experts to do it but it’s not easy. Even when Boston did it, they didn’t do their Regional Rail, so it was only a partial implementation. There were situations where people rolled it out too early, instead of deducting fares it added value to the card. We don’t want to be in that situation.

I know it sounds like I’m apologetic, but I am as frustrated as everyone. But, as far as I’m concerned, we’re still serving the customers. And we won’t roll it out until we’re certain it works.

And quite frankly, I think the vendor underestimated the project’s complexity.

PP: If this is [SEPTA Key vendor] ACS Transportation Solution Group’s fault, does that mean SEPTA will be looking to get a discount?

JC: There are always delay damages built into any contracts, but it’s something that has to be worked out. I don’t want to get into the contract issues. But they know their obligations. But they intend to, again, this is federal dollars being spent; we want to make sure we get what we bid out and we abide by the contract.

PP: Why is this – SEPTA Key – hard to implement? Card systems seem to be ubiquitous. I can pay with cards at a corner bodega. Why is the technology difficult to implement on buses and trains?

JC: One explanation is, when you go and pay for the card at the grocery store, it’s all hard-wired. We have a system where it’s a moving vehicle. When you tap it, it has to be read, validated, make sure money on account, and deducted instantly on the vehicle. So you need to have a radio system and make sure it works all the time—no down time. So there’s that. And the sheer number of vehicles you have to outfit with this technology. It’s a little different.

It’s a lot different.

PP: I get what you’re saying, but I still feel like a lot of people won’t feel like that answer makes sense. Like, we have cell phones that do instant monetary transfers on the go all the time.

JC: I’m sure they do [feel frustrated by the reasons given for the delay.]

If there was a vendor out there that could have done it in 3 months… again, these are experts in the industry. It’s not us. Were not dragging our feet. We want it done, we want it done right, but we’re not doing it. We have a major player installing this system for us.

PP: I always like to end these kinds of interviews by letting the subject say whatever else he wants to get off his chest.

JC: I’m still here, be here a couple more months, helping with the transition. But moved out of the office.

JW: Now my office is bigger than his!

JC: I kind of miss the old office already….

[Casey took a moment to collect his thoughts.]

I can’t say enough about the employees at SEPTA. And how they sort of rally around the customer service theme and became more engaged with the authority in trying to improve the authority. I can’t say enough. When I was termed a reluctant GM at the time, I wasn’t’ sure at the time what sort of change… but I really think that when you talk to the employees, they say it’s a different SEPTA now then it was 20 years or 30 years ago. They’re really appreciative of the path we’re on. That’s why I think the future for SEPTA is really bright and we’ll continue on this path. Even more so with the capital funding and capital projects that’ll improve capacity. I really think Jeff will have a great reign as GM because of that.

I think – put it his way – I think he’s in a different position than what I was when I took over 8 years ago. And, yeah, there are a lot of things that manifest itself in improved service out there as a result of Act 89. No question about it. But he has to get it done and he will get it done. 

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