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Mayor Kenney makes pick for long-vacant SEPTA board seat representing Philadelphia

“I’ve been with the mayor for a long time,” said Deborah Mahler, deputy mayor for intergovernmental affairs. “I want to continue to push out his agenda, and this is a priority for him."

Among issues facing the SEPTA board are hikes and transfer fees, a funding debate, and further plans for a bus redesign.
Among issues facing the SEPTA board are hikes and transfer fees, a funding debate, and further plans for a bus redesign.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Mayor Jim Kenney will appoint Deborah Mahler, deputy mayor for intergovernmental affairs, to the vacant role on the governing board of SEPTA, one of the nation’s largest transit agencies, city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said Wednesday.

Kenney will send his choice for the unpaid position to City Council for confirmation Thursday, she said.

SEPTA’s board — made up of two representatives each from the surrounding five counties serving five-year terms, plus four appointees from the legislature and a pick from the governor — has been short a Philadelphia representative since the July resignation of Beverly Coleman, former assistant vice president for community relations at Temple University.

Before being named to her current post in City Hall, Mahler was Kenney’s longtime chief aide while he served on Council. She has “always been by my side,” he has said.

Mahler, who lives in Northwest Philadelphia and is an occasional SEPTA bus rider, believes she could “bring a different perspective to the board.”

“I’ve been with the mayor for a long time,” she said. “I want to continue to push out his agenda, and this is a priority for him,” highlighting the planned redesign of SEPTA’s bus routes.

Mike Carroll, the city’s deputy managing director for the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, appointed in 2017, is currently Philadelphia’s lone representative on the board.

“Because Mike Carroll is so closely involved in SEPTA operations and governance, the mayor did not feel compelled to hastily fill the open seat,” Cofrancisco said in an email concerning how long the spot had been open.

While it does not hold direct power over daily administration, the board is influential in policy-making for the $2 billion agency. Among SEPTA’s upcoming issues are fare hikes and transfer fees, a funding debate, and a bus redesign that calls for a close working relationship between the city and SEPTA.

Carroll said he wasn’t surprised by the decision to appoint Mahler.

“Deb brings a lot of knowledge about the way that the state works, in terms of both the politics and the legislation,” Carroll said. "It’s unfortunate that Bev had to step down, but I think we’re actually going to be in a good situation with Deb given her strengths.”

Funding is “front and center” at the moment, said Matthew Mitchell, vice president and commuter rail chairman of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers.

SEPTA’s focus is still on “state of good repair” improvements as it develops a FY2021 capital budget, projected around $700 million and to be voted on in May. More money, however, is needed to turn much-anticipated projects like trolley modernization and the King of Prussia rail extension into realities. The threat of losing a major source of funding through the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in 2022 has sent officials looking for solutions.

“What is going to be needed at that point is for all of the constituency — city, county, riders, workers, business — to all be pulling together to stress the importance of the system to the economy of the Philadelphia area, and to the economy of the state as a whole,” Mitchell said.

SEPTA’s board is poised for a shift to Democrats’ control for first time in its history after a blue electoral wave in Philadelphia’s suburbs in November. The election helped to renew conversation surrounding the board’s makeup and tensions between urban and suburban interests.

“There are very few issues on which the board is divided, let alone divided to the point where one vote or two votes is going to swing a difference," Mitchell said.

Because of population density, city representatives hold a veto power that can be overridden only by three-fourths of the board, as exercised in 2004 over fare increases.