Leslie S. Richards is someone you might run into while taking SEPTA. She rides daily.
The transportation authority’s new general manager, who succeeded Jeffrey Knueppel in the role earlier this month, takes it from her Montgomery County home and to teach an increasingly popular course at the University of Pennsylvania. She took it to see the “Notorious RBG” exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History on a recent weekend, too.
Richards, the second woman to serve in the position, takes her job very seriously. But, with a storied resumé that includes Montgomery County commissioner, chair of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, and PennDot secretary — she still had never quite pictured herself in the corner office where City Hall serves as a prominent backdrop.
“I think I can do a lot of the work that I was doing before,” she said, “but in a different way, and having a real, direct impact on the communities that we serve."
Richards, who comes from a planning background, is passionate about a lot of things. She cares about equity and accessibility, community engagement, easing congestion, as well as the environment and sustainability. She’s reading The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biography of New York’s controversial master builder, Robert Moses — for fun.
“The irony of it is I believe it was probably assigned while I was in grad school, and I probably looked at it and I was like, ‘I’m not reading that,' " she joked, concerning its more than 1,300 pages.
When SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale T. “Pat” Deon Sr., who is also a turnpike commissioner, approached her about the manager job, she kept her interests in mind, weighed the decision against a job she loved, and took it on — “embarrassed” that she hadn’t seen the opportunity before.
She starts with a lot on her plate. There are growing costs with the SEPTA Key, declining bus ridership and a redesign, debate over transfers, an FBI probe, trolley modernization, a rail extension into King of Prussia, and, of course, funding concerns.
Richards touched on some of those concerns during a wide-ranging interview with The Inquirer this week, giving insight into how she’ll run one of the largest transit agencies in the nation.
“People think I’m in the transportation business; I think that I’m in the people business," she said. “I’m here to reduce stress in their day. I’m here to make sure they can get there in time to see their kids play sporting games. I’m there to make sure they can take care of their elderly parents. ...
"I think with my head, and I think with my heart.”
Richards has spent her first few weeks meeting as many of SEPTA’s more than 9,600 employees as she can, getting acquainted with her own team, and getting briefed on projects and developments including with the SEPTA Key and KOP rail expansion.
“A lot of employees have been proactive in reaching out to me," she said. "They want to let me know what we’re doing well and some ideas of what we can do better, which I’m very much interested in.”
But she’s also making changes, bringing aboard Jody Holton, former executive director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, to take on a new position as assistant general manager for planning out of a desire “to elevate where planning is in the agency.” Holton begins Monday.
Richards identifies financial challenges as a big issue facing SEPTA, with a looming threat of losing a major source of transit funding funneled through the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in 2022.
“Transit funding is in a real precarious point right now," she said.
Even if the $450 million model were viable — officials have expressed instability concerns to The Inquirer in the past — Richards believes SEPTA would need to almost double that amount for progress to continue. With experience in both the public and private sectors, her connections in Harrisburg could prove a valuable resource.
Last year, Richards was part of an advisory council looking to identify solutions, which she called a “good first step."
“The answers are not there," Richards said. "Everyone agrees we need to invest in transportation, but not everyone agrees on how we raise that money.”
Buses, congestion, and transfers
Richards is “thrilled” that Mayor Jim Kenney is talking about transit, as he did when he voiced support of the planned redesign of SEPTA’s bus routes during his inaugural remarks earlier this month.
She said she “worked well” with the Kenney administration while in Harrisburg and hopes to continue that relationship as she eyes issues like congestion. She said she’s met with City Council members, too.
“I think I’ll find here what I found in Harrisburg, and that’s that elected officials understand that investment in transportation is a worthwhile effort, and it can really bring about good things for their communities, but it’s just ‘How do we pay for it?’ ”
As for her thoughts on eliminating transfer fees, and consolidating bus stops — recommendations included in a 100-page report concerning bus network revitalization? She’s “taking a look.”
“I do need to get the numbers of ‘What does that mean?’ ” Richards said. “How much do the transfer fees bring into SEPTA right now? I need a detailed look at that, but I do know that we’ll be talking about that.”
Richards said she has her eyes on both cities’ programs and while both cities may differ from Philadelphia, she thinks there will be lessons to learn.
“It’s definitely something worth looking into and seeing again, how it would impact SEPTA — the good and the bad, because I don’t know that yet," she said.
Changes to SEPTA’s board
A blue wave that descended onto Philadelphia’s suburbs after November’s general election could bring a historic Democratic shift on SEPTA’s board in the years ahead.
For now, there’s only speculation on what that could mean for customers, considering Philadelphia has more public transit riders than the surrounding four counties represented on the board combined.
“I just think the priorities may be a little bit different, and so we’ll see how they want to deliver services to their constituents," Richards said. "It remains to be seen how different it is, but I do know that a lot of the new county commissioners ran on transportation, so it’s at the forefront.”