Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Joe Casey leaves SEPTA in best shape ever

SEPTA’s Mr. Fix It wins transit battles, loses War on Slugs.

SEPTA's Joe Casey and the Phanatic know the best way to get down to Citizens Bank Park for a ballgame: the SEPTA Broad Street Line. (Photo from SEPTA)
SEPTA's Joe Casey and the Phanatic know the best way to get down to Citizens Bank Park for a ballgame: the SEPTA Broad Street Line. (Photo from SEPTA)Read more

FRANCIS KELLY, who has been SEPTA's assistant general manager for public and government affairs during the seven years of general manager Joe Casey's reign, said his boss, who resuscitated the tapped-out, trauma-prone transit agency, is a weekend Mr. Fix-It.

"Unlike me, Joe can build things," Kelly said with a childlike sense of wonder. "In my toolbox is a screwdriver, a hammer and a cellphone because once things get beyond the first two, I have to call somebody."

But Casey, he said, is a tool-happy weekend warrior - except for one time.

"Joe got very frustrated when these slugs kept coming up from underneath his deck," Kelly said, "so he used this strong pesticide to kill them.

"Joe comes in on Monday-morning with what looked like burn marks all over his face," Kelly said.

"He's holding his head in his hands and laughing and telling me he must've gotten some pesticide on his fingers and then touched his face.

"He's got the Irish laughter and the twinkle in his eye," Kelly said. "I'm going to miss those Monday morning coffees with Joe."

So will SEPTA - and not just the slug war stories. After 34 years on the job, Casey is retiring on Sept. 30.

Since assuming leadership in 2008 of the mass-transit system that moves thousands of Philadelphians to work every day, Casey has led SEPTA out of its dismal decades of doomsday scenarios when the ancient infrastructure and the cash-strapped budget were always tottering on the brink of ruin.

Casey, 59, replaced those eve-of-destruction scenarios with dozens of station rebuilds, 715 new hybrid buses, 120 new Silverliner V regional rail cars, and 24/7, Twitter-driven, real-time transit alerts (warts and all) that ushered in an eye-opening "you look like you need a hug" embrace of frazzled riders.

Pat Deon, SEPTA's chairman of the board since 1999, remembers being shocked when he first interviewed Casey, a career budget expert, for the general manager's job.

"We're sitting there, going through the interviews," Deon said, "and Joe goes, 'I'm not really sure I want to be the general manager.' I'm like looking in disbelief.

"Joe has that self-effacing, 'I don't have to be the guy' attitude," Deon said, but he is the guy.

Casey remembered that job interview in the context of the 2008 climate - SEPTA was both broken and perennially broke, and Harrisburg politicians not from Philadelphia had a toxic attitude toward funding fixes for the transit agency's decaying infrastructure.

"I wasn't gung-ho to become general manager," Casey admitted. "I didn't tell the board, 'I know I can make a difference.' There were financial challenges, not the least of which were political, and I wasn't sure I could make a difference."

It's a good thing Deon was sure.

"Going back to when Joe was assistant chief financial officer, I've never seen the man tell a story or give me an excuse," Deon said. "When there's a problem, Joe is 'Mr. Bad News First.' And I want to hear the bad news first."

Working as a team, Deon and Mr. Bad News First made SEPTA's dire financial need so publicly clear and irrefutable that they eventually won Harrisburg's non-Philly legislators over - which was unheard of within living memory.

Casey's boldest move was to gamble on signing engineering contracts for vital station and track rebuilds before the 2009 American Recovery and Re-Investment Act money was awarded, so SEPTA was shovel-ready before it knew it would get federal money to dig.

Casey's gamble paid off when SEPTA got $191 million in stimulus funds for 34 reconstruction projects.

"When the federal stimulus program was announced, we were so starved for capital funds," Casey said. "They rolled it out and said whoever doesn't use it right away will lose it. We weren't going to lose a dime and if someone else wasn't ready to use theirs, we were first in line for that money.

"We had 34 projects ready to go and 50 percent of them were awarded in four months," he said. "It was a godsend for us and for the construction outfits because they were starving for work. We had one chance to get this right, and we did."

The second godsend was the 2013 passage of Act 89, finally giving SEPTA a stable capital funding stream of $300 million to an eventual $600 million to rebuild century-old viaducts over Darby, Cobbs, Ridley and Crum creeks, reconstruct 1930s power substations, rehab the City Hall subway station that has been neglected since the 1920s, and build new locomotives and Silverliner VI railcars.

"After years of underfunding, we are still the grandchild of older systems that went belly up and didn't invest in their infrastructure and equipment," Casey said.

"You can't put a patch in the middle of support girders on a 100-year-old bridge," he said.

"Our Silverliner IV rail cars are 40 years old. I can't keep cars that old reliable. Our locomotives are from the late '80s, well-beyond their useful life. I'm trying to borrow the locomotives that Amtrak is scrapping, which are still better than what we have."

Thanks to Act 89 funding, Casey said SEPTA will have new locomotives and Silverliner VI rail cars in the near future.

Along with financial stability, Casey said, his creation of a rapid-response customer service team is the hallmark of his general manager regime.

"People see me on the train, they know me, they talk to me," Casey said. "I answer emails from customers myself and I don't let them sit for two days. I answer them right away. I think very few CEOs do that.

"Some customers have my cellphone number and they call me if their bus is late," he said. "I welcome that. I always approach this as a customer myself."

Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association that honored SEPTA with its "best major system" award in 2012, said: "We are a nomadic people. As general managers, we move all over the country to run transit systems. Joe is one of a very small group who runs their hometown system.

"Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia are cities that have the really old infrastructure and equipment, the backbone stuff that passengers never see," Melaniphy said. "To make that work day after day with equipment from companies that don't even exist anymore - that's a challenge few have to deal with it. Joe had to deal with that. He has a steady hand."

Casey leaves SEPTA in much better shape than he found it - and in much better shape than he was in after his epic War on Slugs.