When Joseph Casey took over as general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in 2008, he knew there was a big challenge in front of him.
Equipment and buildings across the system had been left in shambles from years of neglect, customer satisfaction surveys showed riders were not pleased with the overall service they were getting and budget dollars were scarce. He knew something needed to be done immediately in order to save one of the largest and oldest transit systems in the United States and rebuild it as a strong, dependable system to serve one of the most populous regions of the country.
“We’ve been getting better press, but a lot of it has to do with getting some of the naysayers back on board,” Casey says. “We brought them on board early to show them why you should care about transit and that transparency has really benefitted us and improved our credentials.”
SEPTA is the sixth largest transit agency in the United States, with more than 1.2 million passenger trips made per day using trolleys, buses, subways, El trains and regional rail lines, which were all part of old transit agencies and rail companies that went out of business then formed into one authority between 1964 and 1983. While other big city systems are similar to SEPTA, leaders note it’s the only agency that directly operates all modes of transport by itself.
However, SEPTA also has an unsavory claim to fame — its age.
“We’re a legacy transit system and we get kind of upset when we hear some of the other agencies say they’re a legacy system,” says Jeffrey Knueppel, deputy general manager of operations and EM&C divisions of SEPTA. “I mean we go way back.”
Kneuppel says many of SEPTA’s assets date back to the early 1900s. Some bridges running rail date back to 1882, catenary from 1915 is still in use and at some of the electrical substations, Westinghouse equipment with patent dates of 1929 are still pumping electricity. Rail lines also run on different tracks, as well. One line has trolley gauge track while others run regular gauge and others are under-running third rail.
And because SEPTA was formed from old agencies that went bankrupt, Knueppel says service had been deferred for years before SEPTA even took over the assets.
Because of the age of its assets, SEPTA leaders says achieving a state of good repair was a core business goal put in place even before President Barack Obama’s “Fix It First” decree because despite rising ridership, they can’t expand service.
“How do you put an extension on your house when your roof is leaking,” Knueppel says.
An Immediate need of repair
In the Center City area of Philadelphia, city workers are constructing the Dilworth Plaza, a 120,571-square-foot public area with green space near city hall, which SEPTA officials have described as a “mini” version of Millennium Park in Chicago. Elevators are being installed as part of the project to provide ADA access to the subway station below and a grand entrance will be constructed as well to the station.
However, once the project is completed in 2014, people who leave the beautiful green space and new entrance below will then be greeted by a subway station that hasn’t been updated in 90 years.
And despite a yearn by SEPTA leaders to get the construction to extend deeper into the subway station and make updates where they’re direly needed — especially given 70 percent of those who work in the Center City commute via transit — the money isn’t there.
“This was a very, very expensive project,” Knueppel says. “And we’re not whining here, but we’re saying one of our biggest issues is capital funding. We’re going to have this beautiful grand entrance, butdownstairs we have this. We’ve worked with the Center City District to make this entrance nice, but we wish we could go a little further in.”