Leslie Richards’s Bold Vision for a Better SEPTA
This is about more than the future of a transit agency — it’s a fight for the very soul of the region.
On a pleasant morning in mid-May, SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards and I are standing on a train platform in Kensington, smack in the middle of America’s largest open-air drug market, listening to a SEPTA employee tell us about the night he saved a kid’s life.
The employee, Larry Burgess, is a station manager with SEPTA, in charge of keeping a handful of stations on the Market-Frankford Line as clean as they can be. He’s remembering a night 18 months ago, not long after he started at the transit agency, when he arrived at a station in West Philly around 10 o’clock and heard a young guy drunk and cursing and a young woman screaming. He didn’t make much of it at first — “That’s SEPTA,” he says — but then he looked and saw that the guy was sitting on the yellow caution line at the edge of the platform, perilously close to the tracks themselves. And he saw a train coming.
Burgess tried to get the attention of the station cashier, but when that failed, his SEPTA training kicked in. He reached into his pocket, got out his iPhone, and started waving the lit-up device over the tracks — a signal to the train engineer that he needed to stop. Within a few seconds, the whistle blew — an acknowledgement the driver had seen Burgess — and the train slowly screeched to a halt. Burgess leaned over to the young guy on the platform.
“I said, ‘Listen, man, I don’t know what you’re going through, but I want to tell you right now — I love you,’” he says as Richards and I listen. “‘If you want to talk about it, you can talk about it. But now, I need you to get up and take a step back.’” The young man looked up at him. “As God is my witness,” Burgess continues, “the kid got off the yellow line and sat down and waited for me. The point is, I reached him, and … ”
Suddenly, the three of us hear shouting. We turn, and just a few yards from where we’re standing, at the turnstile entrance to the station, two SEPTA cops are in a scrum with a couple of guys who’ve presumably tried to avoid paying the fare.
“We’ve got an altercation over here,” Leslie Richards says, pointing.
“Get away from me!” one of the guys screams at the cops. “Leave me the fuck alone! Let me through!”
The cops push him back. Richards, dressed today in casual black pants and a black shirt with a small SEPTA logo, gently leads me a few feet away to make sure we stay clear of the skirmish.
We watch for a moment, and then she says, calmly, “There’s been this rise in antisocial behavior that’s just unbelievable. This is something at a level we just haven’t seen before. And it’s everywhere.” A few more seconds pass, and the situation calms down. One of the guys — I assume he’s now paid the fare — walks out on the platform, and life returns to normal. Or at least, what passes for normal at Allegheny Station in Kensington in the spring of 2023.
Leslie Richards — who is 56, and over the past three decades has worn hats ranging from stay-at-home mom to Montgomery County commissioner to Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Transportation — assumed the top job at SEPTA in early 2020, shortly before the world went to hell. In the three and a half years since, she and her team, despite dealing with the rash of issues presented by the pandemic, have rolled out an innovative, even revolutionary new vision for SEPTA meant to both modernize the system and make it more appealing to a greater number of people. Indeed, it’s a plan, Richards believes, that will help power Southeastern Pennsylvania’s economy, push back against climate change, and increase equity for lower-income residents, all while making SEPTA as easy and pleasant to use as London’s Tube or other great European transit systems.
But of course, there are challenges. One is financial. Since 2020, SEPTA, like nearly every other big-city transit network in America, has only kept its nose above water thanks to emergency COVID-relief funding from the federal government — funding that will run out next year. Without the money, SEPTA says, it’s effectively perched on the yellow caution line, perilously close to the tracks. Unless it can figure out a way to close a projected ongoing budget deficit of more than $240 million per year, it will have to jack up fares and significantly reduce service.
Transit systems like SEPTA don’t operate in a vacuum, but in the real world — a world that at the moment is struggling.
The other challenge the agency faces is no less daunting: dealing with the ongoing impact that COVID has had on the system, the city, and society in general. While SEPTA’s ridership has slowly climbed back from the depths it hit during the COVID lockdown of 2020, it’s still just half of what it was before the pandemic. Some of the decrease is due to the professional class working from home, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that significant sections of the system — notably the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines — are perceived by riders to be unsafe and unpleasant, in large part because they can, in fact, be unsafe and unpleasant. Major crime on SEPTA is nearly double what it was before the pandemic, and it sometimes seems a week doesn’t pass without another headline detailing yet another shooting or stabbing on the system. On top of that is the increase in antisocial behavior Richards references — people evading fares, smoking in subway cars, abandoning trash — plus the persistent presence in train cars of people experiencing mental illness, homelessness and addiction.
For many of those people, Kensington is ground zero. “It’s kind of a push-pull thing,” says SEPTA police officer Kemba Heppard, another employee Richards and I chat with on the platform. He’s trying to explain the daily dynamic SEPTA deals with, noting that the shelters where many of the unhoused and addicted seek refuge at night force people out first thing in the morning, at which point they often head to SEPTA. “The city pushes it on SEPTA, and if you’re not riding or don’t have the fare, we push you back out.” He shakes his head. “They simply don’t have anywhere to go.”
I tell Heppard I was at Allegheny Station a couple of weeks ago and saw two or three people so high that they were in danger of falling off the platform and onto the tracks. “I mean, if it’s the first or 15th of the month, it’s free samples,” he explains. “That means people are getting a sample batch of drugs free from dealers. And you know how that goes.”
If you thought leading a transit agency was just about, pardon the Mussolini reference, keeping the trains running on time, a morning at Allegheny Station will adjust your thinking. Transit systems like SEPTA don’t operate in a vacuum, but in the real world — a world that at the moment is struggling not just with homelessness, mental illness and addiction, but also with income inequality, cultural differences, political divisions, and permanent lifestyle changes wrought by COVID.
Which means, of course, that while Leslie Richards might be trying to build the SEPTA of tomorrow, she has to do it while operating in a present moment that is, well, all kinds of fucked-up.
Richards is, as she puts it to me one day, “a social person” — someone who enjoys interacting with other people. The first time she and I talked, in a conference room at SEPTA headquarters in Center City, she was friendly but business-like. But the second time we get together, to ride the El from 13th Street up to Kensington and back, she’s relaxed and chatty, interacting with numerous SEPTA employees along the way while opening up to me about everything from her love of the Flyers to her varied career to the way that, invariably, what she’s learned in one job influences how she does the next one.
She tells me, for instance, that one day when she was a Montgomery County commissioner (she served in office from 2012 to 2015), fellow commissioner Josh Shapiro — now the governor and still her close friend — asked her to pinch-hit at a Saturday-morning meeting of parents of kids with physical and intellectual disabilities. “That was a life-changing moment for me,” she says, “to see parents in our county who have children who were aging out of the system and just the stress they lived with every day. And now they were about to hit a new level of stress, where their kids would no longer be able to receive services through the school system.” Richards filed the experience away, and when Tom Wolf made her Transportation Secretary (she served from 2015 to 2019), she instituted a program that gave jobs as greeters inside DMV offices to disabled adults. She still remembers how grateful the parents of those young adults were.
As for Richards’s current job: If you’re not a regular SEPTA rider — or even if you are — it can be easy to underestimate just how vast an organization she now oversees. The agency — the fifth-largest transit system in the U.S. — employs more than 9,000 people and has an annual budget of more than $2.7 billion. Its operating divisions man nearly 200 different subway, trolley, rail and bus lines. They maintain nearly 2,800 vehicles that cover 450 miles of routes in seven counties and three states. And even though ridership is down compared to pre-pandemic days, the system still carries 600,000 riders a day around the region.
Those riders cover the gamut — young, old, rich, poor, all races — but the largest chunk are working-class. According to SEPTA, more than two-thirds of riders earn less than $50,000 per year — and one in five makes less than $15,000 per year. More than half of all riders are Black. The mode of transportation used most frequently is the bus.
SEPTA’s riders contribute more than $350 million in fare revenue each year, but that’s less than 15 percent of the agency’s overall spending. The rest of the money mostly comes from federal, state and local governments, with the state covering the biggest share — about 44 percent in the next fiscal year. That SEPTA is so reliant on public funding is, of course, its longtime Achilles’ heel, since it means the agency constantly needs to be making a case for itself in front of lawmakers and elected officials. At best, the funding is framed as an investment; at worst, as a handout. That’s in contrast to tax money spent on roads, which is commonly thought of as just a basic function of government.
When Richards was being considered for this job in 2019, she told decision-makers that SEPTA needed a new strategic vision, laying out what it wanted to be and how it would get there. She also wanted the organization to learn from other transit agencies. “The board liked to just look at SEPTA,” she says. “I don’t think they compared themselves to other agencies as much as we do now.” Richards has delivered on her pledge, not only looking to systems like the Tube for inspiration but routinely communicating with officials at other agencies. (She lost a World Series bet last fall to the head of Houston’s transit agency and had to send him a lot of Tastykakes.)
When it comes to reinventing SEPTA, Richards has started with the organization itself. Like any large bureaucracy, SEPTA has its share of bloat, waste and corruption, not to mention low morale. Since her arrival, she’s overseen the creation of an Efficiency & Accountability Program that’s identified more than $100 million in potential savings, with most of the ideas coming from SEPTA employees themselves. The organization has also launched a Diversity, Equity and Belonging program to make sure its hiring practices and culture are inclusive.
Still, for all the attention Richards has paid to reinventing the organization, she’s paid even more to reimagining the transit system it operates. SEPTA turns 60 this year, and for most of its existence, its focus has been not only on getting people to and from work, but on getting people to and from work based on a traditional nine-to-five schedule. That vision was being strained even before the pandemic — ridership had been slowly declining for nearly a decade — and COVID pretty much blew it apart completely. SEPTA’s new strategic plan calls for it to be a “lifestyle transit network.” SEPTA still wants to carry people to work, but also to concerts and medical appointments and visits with family.
How to make that a reality? It begins with taking SEPTA’s many disparate parts — its buses, trolleys, subway cars and trains, many of which don’t connect with each other easily — and reimagining them as components of one seamless, integrated whole. That means more frequent and extended service. A core network of high-use routes designed to move people quickly. Easier transfers from one mode to another. (In 2020, the SEPTA board approved one free transfer per trip; Richards pushed to make it two and the board approved a second transfer for SEPTA Key holders effective July 1st.) More consistent, and affordable, fares. And new names. As part of its plan, the agency is rebranding its offerings as SEPTA Bus (including both city and suburban bus routes), SEPTA Metro (including the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines as well as city and suburban trolleys), and SEPTA Rail (what we’ve long known as Regional Rail).
“We need our readers to understand that it’s one system,” Richards says. “We don’t want people to identify as just one thing — a bus, train or trolley rider. We want them to be a SEPTA rider.”
Making that happen means creating a system that’s more intuitive — where riders can easily see how SEPTA can get them wherever they want to go. To do that, SEPTA is committing to better “wayfinding” — investing in clearer, more consistent signage as well as a better website and a sharper app.
SEPTA has taken all these considerations — and plenty of others — and stuffed them into three operational initiatives. One is what it calls the “Bus Revolution” — the first rethinking of SEPTA bus routes in more than half a century. The initial plan was unveiled last fall and, predictably, got pushback from some longtime riders who didn’t want to see things change. But feedback is an important part of the process, Richards says.
The other two initiatives are Project Metro — the unifying and rebranding of the subways and trolleys — and Reimagining Regional Rail. The idea there is to take the suburban commuter trains and integrate them more into the overall system, with more frequent service, lower fares, and more stops inside the city.
I firmly believe the healthier the public transportation system is in a metropolitan area, the healthier the metropolitan area is.” — Leslie Richards
Richards understands how ambitious all this is, but she believes it’s essential for the region.
A few years ago, she was among the business and political leaders who worked together on Philadelphia’s bid for Amazon’s much-ballyhooed “HQ2” — its second headquarters. Philly didn’t get the nod, but Richards learned a lot.
“It was really clear they were going to make their decision based on the quality of life of their employees, and the questions we got from Amazon were connected to that,” she says. “How could their employees use public transportation to access parks and restaurants, to go out with their families on weekends? And could they do it in a clean way that really helps our environment and helps build an equitable future, which was really important to the next generation of employees there?
“It just got me thinking that transportation is extremely important to the success of any metropolitan area. And I firmly believe the healthier the public transportation system is in a metropolitan area, the healthier the metropolitan area is.”
Looking at SEPTA’s history is a way of looking at cultural history. The system’s rail infrastructure was mostly built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — an age when rail was king, so much so that many lines were laid down not by the government, but by private companies. Among them: Philadelphia Rapid Transit (later known as the Philadelphia Transportation Company), which operated the subways and trolley lines; the Reading Railroad, which operated the lines in the western suburbs; and the Pennsylvania Railroad, which operated the lines in the northern suburbs.
Those lines and companies thrived for decades, but signs of trouble started appearing in the 1950s, when people began migrating to the suburbs in droves, the federal government started building the interstate highway system (the Schuylkill Expressway was completed in 1960), and car culture conquered all. Slowly, people and things that had once moved via rail began moving by car and truck.
The rail business got so bad that in 1963, state and regional leaders created SEPTA, a quasi-governmental agency that took over operation of the Reading and Pennsylvania lines in Southeast Pennsylvania and five years later subsumed the Philadelphia Transportation Company as well. By the mid-1970s, most of the components of what we today know as SEPTA were in place.
What’s notable is that the system that was created through the years was essentially two-tiered, reflecting class and race divisions. The subways, trolleys and buses mostly carried working-class Philadelphians — increasingly Black — while the rail lines mostly carried suburbanites (predominantly white) who were commuting into downtown offices. The dichotomy is still detectable when you wander around underground near City Hall, as I did early one recent morning. The subway and trolley corridors are fairly dank and dark, while Suburban Station, into which all the Regional Rail lines feed, still boasts a handful of shops and fast-food outlets. Of course, what really struck me as I walked around Suburban Station was that that age of commuting — think of it as an extended Mad Men era — basically ended with COVID. The flood of well-dressed, well-coiffed suburbanites who stepped off trains as recently as four years ago now isn’t much more than a trickle.
That commuter version of SEPTA is one that Leslie Richards — then Leslie Stern — knew as a child growing up in Bucks County. As for a lot of suburban kids, to her, SEPTA meant holidays and special occasions, taking the train into town to see the Christmas light show at Wanamaker’s or the Flower Show with her mother and grandmother.
Richards brings to her current position an array of educational and professional experiences that seem to make her particularly well-suited to run SEPTA, but her path to the job — which pays her $425,000 per year, thanks to a recent raise — was circuitous. As a high-school student, she excelled in math and science — so much so that she got into Brown and initially declared herself a math major. But before long, she realized she wasn’t quite sure what she would do with a math degree. Nor was she crazy about the fellow math majors she was meeting. She was a nerd, she allows, but they were nerds who didn’t want to talk to anybody else. She began exploring other areas and eventually discovered urban studies, a multi-disciplinary track that pulled together a bunch of areas she was interested in: architecture, art, sociology, statistics, planning.
She moved back to Philadelphia after graduation and within a few years ended up in a master’s program at Penn in regional planning, with classes evenly split among Wharton, landscape architecture and city planning. Before she got too deep into her career, however, she took an off-ramp to stay home with the three kids she and her lawyer husband were raising.
“For a long time, I didn’t talk about it,” she says of the eight years she spent at home with her kids, who are now 27, 24 and 22. “But I realize now it’s important to let people know you can get back into things.”
When Richards did return to work, she essentially walked two paths at once. One was in planning and community outreach, for a couple of engineering firms. The other was in community service, which ultimately led her to politics: A volunteer job at Whitemarsh Township’s community day turned into an invitation to join the parks and rec board, which led to a spot on the township planning commission, which led her to run for Whitemarsh Township supervisor, which ultimately led her to run for Montgomery County commissioner, where she and Shapiro became the first Democrats to win a majority on the three-person board in more than a century. At least to hear Richards tell it, none of the steps was planned out. In fact, she still remembers the moment she discovered what county commissioners actually do: “I said to my husband, do you know there’s this job, county commissioner, and they do all this stuff that I love? And it’s during the day?”
What Richards also discovered along the way was that she had a knack for the work. She enjoyed talking with people, and the jobs were mostly about solving problems — ultimately, perhaps, not so different from math.
Richards says she was interested in the SEPTA position because of the difference she thought she could make. “I’ve never had a job where I’ve been able to impact so many people,” she said the first time the two of us talked. It struck me as an odd comment. She had been, after all, Pennsylvania’s Transportation Secretary, in charge of how nearly 13 million Commonwealth residents get around. But when I thought about it, I realized that what she was getting at was how integral transit is to people’s lives. If the bus or train doesn’t come when you need it to, you’re kind of screwed.
Richards’s first day at SEPTA was January 6, 2020. Within a couple of months, COVID hit, and the job she’d signed on to do got exponentially harder. To put it in math terms, she’d been hired to solve for x, rethinking a transit system. Now she’d also have to solve for y, dealing with a city that was falling apart.
Because she generally has a glass-half-full outlook on the world, Richards, not surprisingly, has found a silver lining in COVID.
“While I never would have wished for the pandemic, it really let us focus in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to,” she says. “Before, it may have seemed a little extra to be talking about a ‘vision,’ but as soon as the pandemic hit, we knew our future was changing for good.”
Richards’s upbeat take doesn’t mean the pandemic wasn’t a massive body blow to SEPTA. It was, from plummeting ridership to the rise of the social ills the agency has had to deal with.
One day recently, I hopped on a Zoom call with Chuck Lawson, who in the spring was formally named chief of SEPTA’s 200-plus-officer police force. His predecessor, Tom Nestel, abruptly retired last summer amid the spike in crime on the system and a no-confidence vote from the SEPTA police union.
Lawson, who grew up in Fishtown and now lives in South Jersey, and who’s spent his entire 29-year career with SEPTA, says the early days of the pandemic were uncharted turf for him and his colleagues. SEPTA had long dealt with people experiencing homelessness and addiction, but for the most part, the agency was able to contain those populations to a couple of large stations and concourses. When the virus arrived, the lockdowns went into place, and the trains emptied out, that changed.
“It created a void, and people experiencing homelessness moved onto the trains themselves,” Lawson says. “We never experienced that prior to the pandemic, and they came en masse. And so we’ve struggled since that point to try and wrap our arms around this.”
The issue is particularly tricky, he explains, because public transportation systems are by nature open and accessible. “It’s hard to prevent people from getting into public transportation, and when you’re in, it’s very hard to determine after the fact whether you’re in legally — whether you paid the fare. We certainly can’t make any assumptions about whether you’re homeless or not.”
But people who are unhoused, addicted or mentally ill aren’t the only challenge the transit police are dealing with. Equally significant is the general decline in civility — the now-rampant disregard for basic rules.
“I’m seeing just a loss of respect for the fellow customer and fellow rider,” Lawson says. “I’m seeing a very quick escalation to violence. Arguments that would stay as verbal arguments in the past are now escalating into physical violence. And more people are carrying weapons than ever. When that verbal argument escalates, if somebody is carrying a weapon, they’re quick to use it.”
One potential solution to the problems — putting more cops on the trains — wasn’t really an option, given that SEPTA, like many law-enforcement agencies, has struggled to retain veteran officers and hire new ones. Things have improved lately, in part because the SEPTA board approved significant salary increases for officers. But getting new cops onto the job — the current academy class has 22 recruits — will take a while.
In the meantime, the SEPTA force has to play whack-a-mole. On any given daytime shift, there are only about 60 officers deployed over the entire 450-mile system, making it tough for them to hand out tickets to people smoking on the train while also dealing with incidents of real violence. Lawson tries to emphasize the big picture — SEPTA makes 600,000 trips a day, and on 99 percent of them, no crime is committed — but he’s sympathetic to the plight of the average rider. “They’re passing folks experiencing homelessness, mentally ill individuals talking to themselves, folks who are addicted and using, and it makes them feel less safe,” he says. “But it’s a problem I’m not going to arrest my way out of.”
Leslie Richards admits that in the early days of COVID, she literally didn’t know what to do. She was new in the job. And who had ever dealt with anything like this before, anyway? But she carried with her experience from her previous jobs, plus a vast network of people she’d met. She pledged to herself to call at least two of them every day to see if they had ideas, observations or contacts that would be helpful. It didn’t take her long to figure out that more policing — even if it was possible — wasn’t going to help. If SEPTA really wanted to make a difference, it would need to try and help the marginalized people who were overwhelming its system.
Thus was born SEPTA’s SCOPE program — SCOPE standing for safety, cleaning, ownership, partnership and engagement. At its core, it’s a program in which SEPTA has partnered with numerous social service organizations to try and connect them with vulnerable people using the system. The partners run the gamut from housing experts to mental health professionals to addiction outreach specialists to medical students from Drexel, all of whom try to engage those in need of help.
This is the business model now. If they don’t see us helping people and doing the best we can, who’s going to get on us?” — Leslie Richards
The approach isn’t without critics — including some members of the SEPTA board, who early on more or less said to Richards: SEPTA is a transit agency, not a social services provider. What the hell are you doing? Her response: Yes, SEPTA’s main mission is to operate a reliable transit network, and that remains the focus for her and her team. But, she added, doing something to address the underlying issues they were dealing with had to be part of the job as well.
“My feeling is, we’re not a transit agency if people are scared to get on us and we’re not moving the region like we should,” she says. “We’re not a transit agency without riders. So this is the business model now. If they don’t see us helping people and doing the best we can, who’s going to get on us?”
It’s hard not to admire Richards’s mix of compassion and hardheadedness. At the same time, it’s sobering to understand just how entrenched issues like mental illness, addiction and homelessness are, and how difficult it is for anyone — let alone a transit agency — to make a difference.
During our morning at Allegheny Station, Richards and I talk with a man named Andres Rodriguez, an outreach worker with Merakey, an addiction recovery organization SEPTA has partnered with. Rodriguez — a military vet who’s been in recovery himself for 16 years — says his days typically begin in the underground corridors near 30th Street Station, rousing people who are sleeping there, telling them they need to move along, and asking them if they need services — anything from a meal and hot shower to a spot in a detox clinic. After several hours there, he and other workers often end up in Kensington, where they try to engage vulnerable people there. Getting people into treatment — reaching them, as Larry Burgess, the SEPTA station manager, had said earlier — is difficult, which is one reason the wins stand out. Rodriguez was able to get an unhoused couple off the street recently, and a few of months ago, a man he had seen multiple times here in Kensington announced he was ready for help.
“You could see the look in his face,” Rodriguez says. “He was exhausted. Just done. He said, ‘I need a bed. I think I’m ready to go in.’ Fifteen minutes later, we got him approved for 14 days in detox.
“But they have to be ready,” he continues. “You can’t want it more than they do, because you’ll get disappointed and discouraged.”
As if to emphasize Rodriguez’s point, at that very moment, a middle-aged man who’s been sitting on the platform starts to crawl — literally crawl — past us.
“One tough son of a bitch coming through!” he says to no one in particular. He comes close enough to me that I have to step aside, and Rodriguez explains that the man has a broken ankle but has refused any help from the outreach workers. Without that, there’s nothing they can do.
I can’t tell if the man is high, drunk, mentally ill or just down on his luck. But it’s a disquieting thing to be in the sixth largest city in America, the wealthiest country in the world, and see a man struggle past you on all fours. Although the man himself, it’s worth noting, seems to have a sense of humor about it.
“One stubborn son of a bitch coming through!” he says as he moves past me. Then he chuckles. “Or dumb, I don’t know.”
Richards has worked hard not to let all the issues related to COVID distract her and her team from the ambitious future they see for SEPTA. But ultimately, building the transit system she wants to build will take money, and in the imperfect world we live in, that’s not always easy to come by.
Actually, one part of SEPTA’s finances — its capital budget, the money it spends on maintaining and upgrading infrastructure like rail cars, buses, stations and technology — has improved in recent years. For a long time, Pennsylvania lagged far behind other states in allocating transit funding, but in 2013, legislation passed in Harrisburg effectively doubled SEPTA’s capital budget, from $300 million annually to $600 million annually. Last year, a shift in that money’s source let SEPTA issue bonds against it, allowing it to raise another $230 million a year in funding. And then came the Federal Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act — the bipartisan infrastructure bill Joe Biden and Congressional leaders were able to pass — which made even more money available. Last year, for the first time ever, SEPTA’s capital budget exceeded $1 billion, and in the coming year, it’s slated to remain at a healthy $977 million.
Still, Richards says, that’s near the bottom of the pack when compared to other big-city transit systems, like New York’s, Chicago’s and Boston’s, and much of the money is being spent not on new projects, but on simply keeping SEPTA’s existing infrastructure from breaking down or falling apart — it has a backlog of more than $5 billion in maintenance projects. (The agency recently scuttled plans to add an ambitious new King of Prussia line due to high cost.)
The bigger problem SEPTA faces financially is its operating budget — the money it spends on labor, services, fuel, and other things to literally keep the system running. The COVID funds Congress allocated are running out, and SEPTA needs a solution.
One option is to get more money from Philadelphia and the counties in SEPTA’s service area, which right now contribute just eight percent of the agency’s budget (the smallest percentage of any big-city transit agency). The wrinkle? Under existing state law, local governments aren’t allowed to impose special taxes or fees dedicated to transit funding — though a bill introduced in the legislature would change that.
The legislation — sponsored by first-term Pennsylvania House Democrat Ben Waxman, whose district covers Center City — would allow governments in Southeastern Pennsylvania (as well as Allegheny County and Centre County) to raise money specifically to go to transit. As the bill is written, counties would have various options for doing that, including imposing potential taxes on liquor and rental cars as well as a personal property tax on cars. Waxman, who tells me he’s been riding SEPTA since he was 12, says more money for SEPTA is crucial for Philadelphia’s future.
Can the bill pass both the state House, controlled by Democrats, and the state Senate, controlled by Republicans? “The bill needs work,” House Transportation Committee chair Ed Neilson, a Democrat from Northeast Philly, says when I ask him that question. He points specifically to the potential tax on owning a car, which he says won’t fly with many of his colleagues. That said, he thinks it’s important for SEPTA to get more money — “Without public transit, we’re in trouble” — and he believes an amended bill, coupled with some backroom legislative horse-trading, has a chance to become law.
The politics of public transit funding in Pennsylvania are perilous, owing largely to the car culture that exists in most of the state (including the Philly suburbs), not to mention the broader political and cultural differences. “The majority of people voting on state funding are not from southeastern Pennsylvania,” Richards says. “I hate to say it that way, but they don’t care about transit.” She starts to laugh. “And they don’t care about southeastern Pennsylvania.” But she’s been in their offices — first as Secretary of Transportation, now as head of SEPTA — trying to tell them why they should care.
She says the argument in favor of more funding — or at least of letting southeastern Pennsylvania tax itself — comes down to money. Part of the new federal infrastructure funding calls for matching by local municipalities; if they can’t come up with the money, SEPTA stands to leave more than $1 billion on the table. And what politician — even from Altoona — wants to let that happen?
What’s more, southeastern Pennsylvania accounts for more than 40 percent of the economic activity in the state — and nearly 40 percent of the tax dollars going to Harrisburg. “A healthier southeastern Pennsylvania makes for a healthier Commonwealth,” Richards says. As she’s already pointed out: You can tell how healthy a metro area is by how healthy its public transit system is.
Ultimately, Richards says, the deep problems SEPTA faces with addiction and homelessness won’t go away until the horrendous situation in Kensington is cleaned up — by someone other than a transit agency.
The Kenney administration didn’t cause the opioid epidemic, and drug dealing at K&A long predates Jim Kenney’s move into City Hall. But the situation he’s allowed to fester and grow over the past seven years — and particularly in the last three — is arguably the biggest act of malfeasance by a public official in Philadelphia since Wilson Goode ordered the MOVE bombing 40 years ago. Perhaps Cherelle Parker will do better. It’s hard to imagine she could do worse.
“When I talk to my colleagues across the country, they don’t deal with this open-air drug market,” Richards says. “Even in New York, Chicago, Atlanta. It’s a challenge.”
After spending decades in Montgomery County, Richards and her husband moved into an apartment near Washington Square in the fall of 2020. Their youngest had gone off to college, and they wanted to enjoy the fun of urban living again. As the two of us are riding back into Center City from Kensington, Richard tells me the move into town set off an unexpected rumor in political circles: that she and her husband were relocating so that she could run for mayor.
This is not a job where you get to go around and be positive about everything and make decisions that everybody supports.” — Leslie Richards
“I was somewhat flattered,” she says, while making clear she has no interest in the job. “But I was also a little insulted.” Did people really think she thought running a transit agency was a good way to get in the public’s good graces and garner support? “You don’t take this job to make friends,” she laughs. “This is not a job where you get to go around and be positive about everything and make decisions that everybody supports.”
Her instincts are absolutely correct. On another day that I was riding the El — the first time I had gone up to Kensington, on my own — the seats directly in front of me on the ride back were occupied by two men who were clearly strung out. Each had sprawled across his seat, largely oblivious to the outside world.
No one said anything as we moved back toward Center City. Finally, at 5th Street, two women got on. They were Black, and one was wearing a hijab. One of the women looked at the two men, and she started talking loudly to her friend.
“This is a tragedy,” she said, shaking her head. “Oh my God. I get off this train feeling dirty. I know addiction is a sickness. But SEPTA is going to lose all their riders.” She pointed at the two men. “They get on with their trash, and then nobody cleans the train. This is a tragedy.”
She was right; it is a tragedy. As is the fact that the people now bearing the burden of our often unpleasant, often unsafe transit system are the people who have no choice but to take it.
It seems to me that Leslie Richards, who’s trying to move Philadelphia forward even as it’s mired in a miserable present, at least understands that and wants desperately to do something about it.
“I truly think you can do every job a lot bigger than the mission of the job,” she tells me, not long before we hop off our train and say goodbye. I can almost see the complex equation she’s been trying to solve in her head. “This job is so much more than getting people from point A to point B.”
Published as “The Conductor” in the July 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.