Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards will take over as SEPTA’s general manager in January, becoming the second woman to hold the position at the nation’s sixth-largest transit agency.
The SEPTA board voted unanimously to appoint Richards during Thursday’s meeting, confirming a rumor that she would succeed Jeffrey Knueppel, whose departure was announced earlier this year. Knueppel has been general manager since 2015, though his career with SEPTA spans three decades. He will retire Dec. 31.
Richards will take the helm with problems to solve. There’s declining bus ridership, and years left on a redesign for the bus network. SEPTA Key, the transportation authority’s modernized way to pay, comes with a growing price tag, and has yet to be fully implemented on Regional Rail and CCT Connect, SEPTA’s paratransit operation. Ending transfer fees also has been a debate between SEPTA and city officials.
And there will be financial issues. The threat of losing hundreds of millions of dollars now funneled through the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in 2022 has sent officials scrambling for solutions, with taxes and fees eyed.
Richards, a Montgomery County resident, is ready to get started.
“Mobility is a big part of what I do now, and the future of transportation is moving as many people as safely and effectively as possible, and public transportation is at the heart of that,” Richards said. "So the opportunity to lead and work with the sixth-largest transit agency in the country is extremely exciting and, of course, in my own backyard, which makes it even better.”
Richards was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 to serve as secretary of transportation and confirmed to another term in April. A former Whitemarsh Township supervisor, Richards began a more public political career after a historic election won her a spot on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners in 2011 alongside now-Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Richards also is a member of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission board, which she formerly chaired, and held a seat on SEPTA’s board in the past.
As transportation secretary, Richards looked to better collaborate with local governments with its “PennDot Connects” initiative, improve road maintenance and preservation efforts by way of a $2.1 billion initiative, and strategically map out investments in roadway reconstruction and reduce “poor bridges,” according to PennDot.
Once in her new role, Richards said, she hopes to elevate planning initiatives but will start by listening to the community.
“That’s what I did at PennDot — I listened a lot at the beginning so that we could then make a plan,” she said. "I know it sounds kind of simple, but it’s really at the heart of everything we’ve been able to accomplish at the commonwealth.”
Richards prioritized diversifying PennDot, a mission she intends to keep at SEPTA, with her own milestones as a burgeoning leader in the male-dominated field of transportation earning her titles like “Woman of the Year," “Female Innovator of the Year,” and “Female Executive of the Year.”
“I know if we improve diversity and inclusion and advance it at SEPTA, we also will see good and positive impacts to the bottom line," she said.
SEPTA’s first woman and first African American general manager, Faye Moore, served from 2002 to 2008, when she retired.
The new title comes with a big raise, too — she’ll trade her $158,373 annual salary at PennDot for $329,732 at SEPTA.
Richards and her husband, Ira, lived in Philadelphia when they met and are “looking into” a move back, she said, now that they are empty-nesters. Plus, she noted, SEPTA has more public transit riders in Philadelphia than in the collar counties.
“We do want to move into the city, we loved the city, and it just so happens that it will also put me at the heart of some of the issues that we’ll be dealing with at SEPTA," she said.
SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale T. “Pat” Deon Sr. said in a statement that he was “thrilled” to welcome Richards back.
“She has a proven track record of success as a transportation executive, and brings a vision for the future that will help us build on our successes and prepare for the challenges ahead," he said.
The Wolf administration is searching for a replacement for Richards at PennDot.
“I look forward to working with [Richards] in this new role to expand and improve public transit in the commonwealth’s largest regional transportation network," Wolf said in a statement to The Inquirer. "Secretary Richards has led the implementation of one of the largest investments in infrastructure in recent history. Her focus on innovation has helped make it easier for citizens to use PennDot services and improve planning for projects across the commonwealth.”
Richards is chair of the Turnpike Commission, AASHTO Active Transportation Council, and Pennsylvania Public-Private Partnership boards, and holds degrees from Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania in economics, urban studies, and regional planning.
Her planning background differs from Knueppel’s. He leaned on his experience as a civil engineer.
During his tenure, Knueppel ensured that SEPTA would become one of the first railroads in the nation to fully install Positive Train Control (PTC) — the federally mandated automatic safety system used to halt dangerous speeds. He was there as structural failures plagued its Silverliner V trains, but also as the region hosted some of the biggest events in its history, including Pope Francis’ visit in 2015 and the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
Knueppel hasn’t announced his plans after departure. He has a $320,000 annual salary.
Richards won’t be the only change in SEPTA’s inner-workings. November’s general election brought a blue wave to Philadelphia’s suburbs, which could mean a historic Democratic shift on SEPTA’s board in the years ahead.