SEPTA retiring boss tells all: Key card chaos to ‘crazy’ planning in a rising city

SEPTA retiring top boss Jeffrey Knueppel led Philadelphia’s transportation agency through big challenges including “wild weather,” changing technology and global events.

Jeffrey Knueppel speaks to conductor Gary Brown. (SEPTA)

Jeffrey Knueppel speaks to conductor Gary Brown. (SEPTA)

SEPTA general manager Jeffrey Knueppel is looking forward to New Year’s Eve.

As the trains and buses under his watch carry drunken revelers to their 2020 soirees, Knueppel will ride out the end of a hectic career at the regional transportation authority.

“I’m really very happy with how things turned out here at SEPTA for me,” said Knueppel about his retirement. “But the next chapter is really to put a little more balance in my life. I very much want to spend more time with my family and that’s something I am looking forward to.”

Knueppel describes his 32-year career as intense, costing him “thousands of hours of sleep” and precious time with his family. And looking back on the last four years, as the authority’s head of day-to-day operations, it’s clear why that’s the appropriate word.

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“I came in with the Pope,” said Knueppel, recalling the 2015 papal visit that all but shut down the city. Knueppel took over shortly after his predecessor Joe Casey retired. “We had the Super Bowl parade, the NFL Draft, and the Democratic National Convention.”

And that’s not to mention the 2016 historic blizzard that dumped about 20 inches of snow on the city and shut down most of the service for the region or a design flaw that paralyzed a third of the regional rail fleet later that year. Then there was the transit strike that almost crippled the city during the pivotal 2016 presidential election, just to name a few of the obstacles Knueppel navigated.

“In recent years, Philadelphia has really been able to go to a national, and really, an international, level with some of the events that we’ve held here,” Knueppel said. “And I think SEPTA planned like crazy and really did the best we could in my short tenure as GM manager.”

Navigating ‘wild weather’

The blizzard, being the fourth biggest in Philadelphia history, is only one of several weather events that challenged the authority during Knueppel’s tenure.

Just this past summer, powerful thunderstorms caused delays for thousands of riders as rains flooded tracks and winds sent trees into catenary wires. The agency had to deploy rescue buses as, despite preparation, the storm caught them off guard, Knueppel told PlanPhilly. It was one of the worst storms he has seen in his career.

With his legacy intertwined with climate change, Knueppel said the weather has been one of his biggest challenges he faced as GM. Regardless of one’s beliefs around the subject, Knueppel warned: “Weather is something to keep an eye on in the future.”

“You look at it and we have these big swings from year to year and it’s been very demanding, not just on me, but on the workforce,” Knueppel said. “You can’t deny that it’s put some very, very wild weather swings at our feet right now. I think that’s going to continue.”

SEPTA Key’s rocky rollout

Changing technology was another global challenge that hit SEPTA hard. SEPTA’s smart fare Key card system promised to bring the regional transit into a seamless digital future but the reality has proven far more complex — and about $200 million costlier. SEPTA Key made its debut more than two years late in 2016, a rocky rollout that tumbled right into Knueppel’s regime.

The intro of the card system that replaced tokens and paper passes was muddied by a clunky web experience, software problems, and a host of other issues. And now, some six years after the Key card readers were introduced, they have to be replaced for security upgrades. Knueppel will start his retirement just as SEPTA dives into a $4.4 million upgrade of the card readers.

“These are tough projects,” Knueppel said. “It’s taken longer certainly than I wanted to happen, but we had to make sure it didn’t go south on us.”

Knueppel also said he underestimated “how difficult in some ways this project was going to be. But we’ve been able to move it along incrementally. It’s a project that in some ways doesn’t end.”

SEPTA is in the process of rolling out the key on Regional Rail and travel wallet for the regional service is expected in March 2020. And the key is also expected to be functional on SEPTA’s CCT service for people with disabilities and seniors in mid-2020.

Knueppel’s exit comes as the five counties served by SEPTA are all Democratic for the first time in history, implicating a possible shift in priorities for SEPTA’s board as newly-elected officials make appointments. And after more than 20 years of leadership, board chairman Pasquale “Pat” Deon is reportedly contemplating retiring after his current five year-term. Also, Act 89, the funding mechanism that pulled SEPTA from the brink and helped fund its capital projects inches to an end in 2022.

The potential shake-up is set to be inherited by state transportation secretary Leslie Richards, who, unlike Knueppel, an engineer who “likes to build things,” has a planning background. Knueppel praised the possibility of bringing a new perspective to the authority.

“We’re at a crossroads and a planner is needed to prepare SEPTA to meet the challenges of the future,” Knueppel said. “The planning mindset is absolutely perfect for SEPTA” and “a planner’s mentality will show what is needed for SEPTA to be able to support the region.”

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