Q&A: New SEPTA GM Jeff Knueppel

As Jeff Knueppel takes over as the general manager for SEPTA, he will lead an agency remarkably different from the one he joined as an entry-level structural engineer back in 1988. Thanks to the passage of Act 89 in 2013 and surging ridership the last few years, SEPTA arguably enjoys the best financial health of its 40 years of existence.

But don’t expect Knueppel to put up his feet and take it easy. He’s taking over for Joe Casey, the man credited for making SEPTA so healthy – no easy act to follow. Plus taking it easy doesn’t seem to be in Knueppel’s nature.

Last month Knueppel sat down with PlanPhilly for a series of interviews for a profile on the man taking over the nation’s 6th largest transportation agency and its 9,300 employees who help move 330 million passengers a year. Expect that profile later this month. This Q&A is a preview and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PlanPhilly: You live in Bedminster, in Montgomery County. If you put Bedminster into Google Maps and ask for transit directions to SEPTA Headquarters at 1234 Market Street, do you know what you get?

Jeff Knueppel: It shows you Perkasie?

PP: No. It says you can’t do it. It says it is impossible.

JK: [Laughs]

PP: So how do you get into work most days?

JK: I drive to Lansdale. Or I drive to different stations – go to meetings and things – and then I ride the system. I’ve been doing that since the mid 90’s. So I’m a very familiar sight on the north end of the system. I’ll go to different lines.

I do it for meetings, but I also want to see things, y’know? Coming from the engineering, maintenance and construction division, I love construction. I love talking to employees, too; love going out and seeing what they’re up to.

PP: Let’s talk about SEPTA Key. I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it now – lots of delays. What’s going on there?

JK: I think SEPTA’s [new payment technology] is a very, very complicated and ambitious project because we’re going after seamless travel. I don’t know of other cities where they have gone to smart card type system for the railroad.

Quite frankly, I would have hoped that we would have gone through things faster.

I know it’s disappointing that they can’t move to this system but we’re right there.

We’re close—I just met with Xerox [ACS Transport Solutions Group, the contractor developing and implementing SEPTA Key, is a subsidiary of Xerox] yesterday. I said: look, we’re so close.

Once we get through pilot testing and all the parameters Xerox is supposed to meet or has met, it really moves fast.

Right now, by the end of November all the buses will have the equipment on them; by the end of December, every subway stop has at least one turnstile [equipped for SEPTA Key]. So, we’re really on the cusp of moving forward, it’s just that we’ve got to get through this testing phase.

But, at the same time, we can’t turn it on until it works.

[ACS/Xerox] could satisfy the requirements of the pilot testing this month, by the end of the month [ED. NOTE: This interview took place on October 16th and the 18th; pilot testing is still ongoing]. If they do, then we’re right near the end of the year, start of the year, starting to do the rollout.

It’s been a long time but we’re in final stages of pilot testing. The only thing left is one piece of equipment we’ve had some trouble with on the buses. They’ve determined the problem and they were testing it just last week—the fix—and it seems right.

And the other issue is making sure the reports are done: that we can track the revenue and reconcile it. To a transit agency, our revenue is magic. It makes everything happen, every day. We cannot have a situation where we lose revenue.

PP: What was SEPTA like when you started?

JK: Back then—1988—it was unbelievable… just the deterioration of the infrastructure. Myself and a lot of the people I worked with, we worked endless hours—just endless hours—taking care of so many situations that today would shock people. But back then we were just ahead of problems.

I worked tremendously [hard]. So did a lot of other people. I remember at one point, my boss came up to me and said, “Jeff, I just checked, you worked 30 days straight, I think you oughtta should take some time off.“ [Laughs]

It was a very, very tough time and there still are a lot of issues that we’re taking care of. But it’s not like it was back then. That was truly a difficult time period.

PP: Let’s talk about Positive Train ControlSEPTA is on pace to make the federal deadline at the end of this year, but most railroads aren’t. And now there is talk of Congress extending the end of this year deadline that you guys worked so hard to hit. [ED. NOTE: This interview was conducted a week before Congress did just that.]

JK: First of all, I always thought the legislation is odd in that it did not take into account the very different levels and situations that everybody had.

This concept of painting all properties with the same broad brush and you all gotta get done at the same time; there were some properties that had really, really big hurdles to overcome. I wouldn’t say we didn’t have hurdles, but I would say that almost everything broke for us the right way.

We’ve split the work between in house teams and 3rd party. That was very, very critical to use being successful. If we had given either to all in house or third party, they wouldn’t have done well.

And our team has stayed together, unlike other agencies.

It’s people. It’s technology, but people have to make this stuff happen and that’s where we’ve been very fortunate, that people stayed together. People that started on the project, they’re all still here.

Now, I got to tell you, Act 89 comes any later and pieces of SEPTA might have started falling away on our rail network. Especially on the Media-Elwyn line, where we had giant viaduct with bad track timbers.

PP: Tell me about plans to redo the concourse. I heard a rumor that plans for a total redo were pared back. Any truth to that?

JK: No. All of the concourse network that SEPTA is currently responsible for will move.

We basically created a phasing plan for the concourse. We’ve been addressing high priority issues first [like basic flooring, paint, new lighting and safety call boxes.]

It is very exciting. In my career, I came from the bridges and building side. I’ve always been involved with stations; I’ve always been involved with facilities right where the customers are in my career. Eventually, I got into other things, track and all. But it really is an exciting project.

In a city as dense as Philadelphia, it’s exciting to have spaces that you can literally use now and make more – make use of. If you think of it, in some of these tough winters and all, wouldn’t it be nice to go for a walk down on the South Broad concourse? Could we have a running track around it… for people to exercise and do different things down there? There are all kinds of possibilities, especially in the section south of City Hall.

PP: So, you will reach out to nearby businesses?

JK: Everyone will be involved. The really exciting part there is the ability to tie into the business and reopen some of those entrances and exits that went through those buildings into the concourse. There are already discussions with some of the people that have buildings in that stretch on how to reopen.

City Hall, Philadelphia deserves to have first class station facilities.

PP: I sometimes get frustrated hearing about projects year after year that never get past the early planning or study stages, like bringing serious mass transit to Roosevelt Boulevard. How about you?

JK: Well, I have absolutely no patience. You can ask the people that work for me.

I like to quote a line, a corny line from what’s that movie with Tom Cruise and the fighter planes…

PP: “Top Gun”?

JK: “Top Gun”. I have a need for speed. [ED. NOTE: Technically, the line is “I feel the need… the need for speed,” but, then again, maybe we don’t want the head of a public transportation agency accurately quoting Maverick, who, as Iceman correctly predicted, did get someone killed, (R.I.P Goose).]

That is one of the things I’m always working on. When we go to ribbon cuttings, I have a phrase I love to say… “Private sector results on a public agency project.”

That’s really what I’m looking for. I’m looking for us to move on things, be efficient. Act 89 gives us that.

And that’s my motto [Knueppel points to a framed sign on his wall that reads: Don’t Celebrate the Idea, Celebrate When You Make The Idea A Reality]

My motto SEPTA GM Jeff Knueppel described sign hanging in his office
(Jim Saksa/PlanPhilly)

PP: You’re more a ribbon cutting, less a groundbreaking, kind of guy, eh?

JK: And when they are finishing, I’m pushing on the next one. It’s how we learned to survive. It’s how we stayed ahead of that tidal wave that was coming over us, it was to keep moving, keep moving, keep moving.

PP: Describe your management style.

JK: I would have to say that I’m very hands-on. I’ve been all over the system. I believe in getting out and seeing things. I always tell the people that work here in 1234 [Market St.], that the headquarters building is good, but what goes on—what really happens— is outside the building. That’s where we have to be successful.

The people that are running the buses, the trolleys, the trains—we have to support them out of here, strongly.

A GM is there for leadership but we don’t make things happen on a daily basis. We don’t bring in the revenue, it’s the people that face up with the customer and give them a good experience that is so important to our business.

PP: We’ve talked mainly about projects happening or likely to happen. What’s a project – one that’s not in anyone’s plans just yet – that you’d like to see happen one day?

JK: Let me just throw this one out there, like the Schuylkill Expressway, what’s with that? [Laughs] I mean, I’d love to see something, like a project that would somehow make the Schuylkill Expressway work a little bit better, whether it’s a combination of transit and highway, or whatever. But that, to me, just seems like something that just needs to be addressed.

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