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Checking out Joe Casey's balancing act

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Jan. 25


By Anthony Campisi
For PlanPhilly


Joe Casey takes a concrete approach to management.

As the SEPTA general manager tasked with turning an often-ridiculed and chronically underfunded agency into a state-of-the-art transit system, Casey has to manage the problems which attend an aging infrastructure.

“You don’t do the new technology when you don’t have a good bathroom” was how he put it.

But riders have come to expect both new technological innovations and good bathrooms, and PlanPhilly sat down with Casey to talk about how he balances those two competing demands for money and resources.

Looming over his tenure is the fate of Act 44, the state law which subsidizes transit agencies.


Though Casey said that he’s been hearing “positive things” and remains optimistic that the federal government will allow the state to toll Interstate 80, if that effort fails, SEPTA’s capital budget will be hit hard, losing $110 million in state aid in fiscal 2011. That number will grow worse with time as budgeted yearly budgeted increases in state aid to the authority are eliminated.

Though SEPTA is committed to honoring current contracts for capital work, Casey said that the authority might have to use debt financing to pay for projects like the Silverliner V purchase.

Upcoming big-ticket items, like plans to renovate the City Hall station, might be pushed back, and ongoing modernization projects will also be re-evaluated. Casey said, for instance, that the authority’s commitment to replace about 10 percent of its bus fleet every year might be revised.

The smart card

Despite the budget uncertainties, Casey is pressing forward with planned customer-service improvements focused around the new fare system.

He said that a contract to build the smart card system may be awarded in May, though it will probably take three or four years to replace the current system of tokens and paper transfers.

The current “open model” that SEPTA is pursuing, in which contactless credit cards and specially designed cell phones will be able to pay fares at the turnstile, will also allow the authority to offset some of the costs of the new system, he said. An open system would let private companies install and maintain some of the new fare collection infrastructure at no cost to SEPTA.

Though SEPTA officials have talked about the benefits of such partnerships before, Casey gave a concrete example, suggesting, for instance, that an outside vending machine company could be responsible for selling the new smart cards.

At the same time, he said that several options for deploying the smart card system on regional rail would “dramatically reduce the cost” of operating the lines.

One plan involves requiring regional rail riders to “tag” into and out of the system, touching their smart cards to readers when they get on and off trains. Another would establish a “tolling” system — riders would be able to take trains downtown without paying but would have to pay double and pass through turnstiles to leave Center City.

Both options would require substantial changes to commuters’ behavior and an extensive education campaign, but Casey is convinced that the added convenience of a smart card will forestall a backlash from longtime riders unhappy with having to change their commuting routines.

At the same time, Casey backed away from the longstanding proposals of some transit advocates, most notably University of Pennsylvania professor Vukan Vuchic, to transform the regional rail system into a network more like the Washington Metro, with short headways and one- or two-person crews on trains.

The smart card system would give SEPTA the opportunity to switch to a proof-of-payment system like the one used on the New Jersey River Line, which would mean that payment would be confirmed by spot checks and taken out of conductors’ hands. But Casey said that he’s not considering reducing the number of conductors on trains anytime soon.

Unlike rail systems that use proof-of-purchase systems, like Caltrain in the Bay Area, Casey said that SEPTA’s stations are spaced too closely together and its infrastructure is too old to allow safe operations with smaller crews — a key component in proposals to increase service frequency because conductor salaries represent a large portion of regional rail operating costs.

Even if conductors aren’t collecting fares “we might still need those crews out there,” Casey said, though he added that he wants to see half-hour headways on regional rail lines.

Hopes for new federal cash

Even assuming Act 44 funding remains at its current levels, there still isn’t enough money to cover all of SEPTA’s capital needs. In the short term, Casey is hoping that Congress will approve a jobs bill that will give more federal money to public transit — the version passed by the House of Representatives in December would provide the authority with about $200 million for more shovel-ready projects.

And long-term, he has hopes that the federal government will provide more sources of funding to established transit systems. Casey has been partnering with transit agencies in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Atlanta to push a “Restarts” program in the federal transportation reauthorization bill because the federal New Starts program is seen as too restrictive for older transit agencies.

Comparing SEPTA with transit systems in a city like Denver just doesn’t work, he argued, because the federal funding formula has been balanced in favor of newer systems.

(Since this interview, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced changes in federal policy that may begin chipping away at that disparity.)

Casey admitted that clearing the long maintenance backlog at SEPTA isn’t always politically easy.

Though he said “it’s not sexy” to replace a century-old bridge, replacing and updating aging infrastructure  is the authority’s key capital objective.

At the same time, don’t expect SEPTA to start taking the lead on expansion projects like the Delaware River light rail line or the R6 extension plan — even though the authority may end up operating any new lines that are built.

Casey applauded the work of outside groups, like the suburban planning commissions and the Delaware River Port Authority, for pushing such plans and said that SEPTA supported their efforts.

But “our capital program is not sufficient to provide” the money to fund ambitious expansion programs, he said, adding that the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission “has to drive” the projects because it’s the body responsible for developing the regional development plan.

Bridging the gap with riders and politicians

When Casey was named general manager about two years ago, he inherited an agency that was frequently ridiculed as out of touch with both riders and political leaders and made turning the authority’s public image around a priority.

Casey claimed progress on both those fronts.

He said that new customer service initiatives, like the QuietRide program, have been popular among riders and that he has reopened lines of communication with rider advocacy groups like the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers and the Citizens Advisory Committee.

While never directly criticizing his predecessor, Faye Moore, he said that he’s “trying to be more transparent” and include rider groups into the decision-making process, including in the design of the Silverliner VI regional rail cars.

Transit advocates complain that they were largely shut out of the process to develop the Silverliner V cars, which are now under construction.

However, he added that the Silverliner VI cars will probably look much like the Silverliner Vs because SEPTA has been impressed with how that model is performing in testing.

At the same time, Casey acknowledged a failure on SEPTA’s part to manage expectations on the Market Street Elevated Reconstruction Project, which was finally completed — over budget and significantly delayed — last year.

When the plan for rebuilding the line was presented in the mid-1990s, SEPTA never communicated to the public or to local leaders the difficulties of the project, he said.

Casey said that SEPTA always knew that the project would cost more than was expected because of a construction boom that drove up the cost of materials and labor and would cause severe economic hardship to West Philadelphia businesses. But those realizations were never passed on to the public and political leaders.

Casey declined to comment about a suit SEPTA has filed against AECOM, the lead architecture and engineering firm on the project, alleging that it was responsible for much of the delays and cost overruns. AECOM has filed to move that suit from Philadelphia Common Pleas Court to the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

He also said that SEPTA won’t have a big hand in economic development efforts focused on undoing the damage a decade of construction inflicted on West Philadelphia commercial corridors.

Instead, Casey expects that the new stations and utility lines that SEPTA constructed, as well as new sidewalks Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell insisted it install, will provide the backbone to the city’s efforts.

Casey also said that relationships have improved with Philadelphia and the suburban counties, a change he attributes in part to the Nutter administration’s creation of a transportation office headed by Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler.

SEPTA now has one number to call when it needs to talk to City Hall. Gone are the days when the city would begin street work without telling SEPTA, forcing the authority to scramble to reroute service.

“We’re not an afterthought anymore,” he said, noting Cutler’s presence on the SEPTA Board. He also praised Mayor Michael Nutter’s role in negotiating a new contract with City Transit Division workers, despite intense criticism from labor leaders — Nutter was famously called a “little Caesar” by union president Willie Brown during the six-day transit strike in the fall.

And on the rider side, SEPTA has begun emphasizing the customer service role of front-line workers like bus drivers and station cashiers. Casey said that SEPTA is now “continually bringing in” workers to talk about customer-service with them and ask for their suggestions.

Because advertisers have been pulling back from buying space on SEPTA vehicles thanks to the recession, Casey bartered with them — the authority now distributes about 25 to 30 gift cards a month to employees. SEPTA gets to reward workers who go above and beyond the call of duty in customer service, while companies get a relatively inexpensive way of advertising on SEPTA vehicles and in SEPTA stations.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead to 2010, Casey touched on two more projects, announcing that the authority is exploring installing a Wi-Fi Internet connection at Center City regional rail stations.

Casey also talked about the NextBus system. SEPTA is still planning on allowing riders to receive text messages about when the next bus is going to arrive at a stop and will now try to provide riders with real-time maps showing the location of buses along their routes.

SEPTA is also hoping to unveil real-time bus-arrival information on LED displays that it will install at the stop outside the Municipal Service Building. Casey is aiming to get that stop open by the spring and will then consider expanding the displays to other major bus stops.

But SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney, who sat in on the interview, admitted that these and other improvements will always be a step behind what riders want. Because technology is advancing so rapidly, applications that didn’t even exist five years ago, like Google Transit, are now indispensable to many riders.

SEPTA has to distribute information in more and newer ways to keep riders happy. The question is whether it can do that while still making sure that, in Casey’s words, the bathrooms keep working.


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