Back in 1995, Pat Deon, a Bucks County businessman newly appointed to SEPTA's board of directors, had his first meeting with General Manager Lou Gambaccini — who had spent decades as a living legend across the Delaware River, where he helped create New Jersey Transit.
But SEPTA might as well have been on a different planet.
"Lou says to me and the other new board members, 'Well, you know we're $75 million in debt, and I'm sure you recall the FBI investigation,' " Deon said.
Deon was flabbergasted. "I can't remember a lot of stuff," he recalls telling Gambaccini, "but I would've remembered those three initials."
Deon, SEPTA's board chairman, laughed heartily at the memory, sitting in his no-frills office on Market Street near 12th, behind a desk distinguished by his "El Presidente" nameplate and the crystal 2012 Outstanding Public Transportation System award - the Oscar of the subway/bus/trolley world - signifying that SEPTA is the best damn transit agency in the U.S. of A.
The American Public Transportation Association award recognizes how far the much-maligned agency has come since Deon first met Gambaccini in the cash-strapped '90s.
"The problem with SEPTA was, they spent like the federal government but they couldn't print money and they couldn't tax anybody," deadpanned Michael J. O'Donoghue, a board member for 18 years before retiring in 2012.
"The perception of SEPTA was that it was fat, inefficient, slothful, a black hole into which money was being poured," he said. "The feds got out of the money-lending, money-giving business to transit. We started going down a slippery slope real fast."
Deon said that when Gambaccini realized "we were on the cusp of being an activist board and weren't going to vote for stuff we didn't understand," he took Deon out to lunch, offered to put him in charge of a board committee and in a final attempt to win him over, said, "And we're both Italian."
Deon remembers telling Gambaccini, "But at least Mussolini made the trains run on time."
Deon laughed again and said: "That was the end of our relationship. I got moved to the child's table at SEPTA board meetings."
Gambaccini retired shortly thereafter. Deon became chairman of the board in 1999, and SEPTA began the long slog toward its transit Oscar.
When the Daily News attempted to contact Gambaccini to get his take on SEPTA in the '90s, a family member said he'd recently returned home from a hospital stay and wasn't up to doing an interview.
O'Donoghue said that when Deon became board chairman, he knew government funding would continue to be a dry well until SEPTA could show a balanced budget and some fiscal common sense.
"No longer could we sit on the board and say, 'Spend the money and more will be coming from Daddy,' " O'Donoghue said. "If someone tells you, 'You're 210 pounds and you should be 180,' you go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' But if the doctor says your heart's going bad, boom! You're on that right away."
Deon said his main focus was, "How are we going to keep SEPTA alive?"
Business sense He had purchased his father's Bucks County beer distributorship when he was 18, and ran it until he sold it to his son. He helped his father in the commercial real-estate business. He and Eagles broadcaster Merrill Reese bought a small radio station — WBCB (1490-AM) in Levittown — which, he jokes, was so small it survived by selling "dollar a holler" ads.
So Deon knew a business couldn't survive by running up huge deficits and then begging for bailouts. And just like his radio station and his beer distributorship, SEPTA was a business.
SEPTA has not run up a deficit in any year since Deon became chairman. His two long-tenured general managers — first Faye Moore, now Joe Casey — were former chief financial officers.
Under Deon, SEPTA has been audited by government officials more than a dozen times and has come up lean and clean. Deon jokes that the worst thing they found in one audit was that the board ate an upscale brand of potato chips with lunch.