From top left, SEPTA spokeswomen Carla Showell-Lee and Elvira Mendez joined Flora Castillo, president of Pivot Strategies, and Leslie S. Richards, their boss at the transit agency, on a ride. — SUBMITTED PHOTO

Montgomery County passengers may be pleased to learn that the new SEPTA general manager is a fellow resident who enjoys commuting to the agency’s headquarters in downtown Philadelphia via the public transportation system that she now oversees.

Leslie Richards, who succeeded Jeffrey Knueppel in January, is the second woman to serve in the position for the nation’s sixth-largest transit agency in the United States. Last May, SEPTA approved a $1.49 billion operating budget and a $675 million capital budget to manage its more than 190 lines, nearly 2,300 vehicles and about 450 miles of track.

It has been more than a decade since the last woman headed the agency. Faye Moore had that honor, serving as the first woman and the first Black general manager from 2002 until she retired in 2008.

“I’ve always wanted to make communities better and improve the quality of life of those who live in the communities and also the people who choose to work and move their businesses to those communities,” Richards said.

Richards is focused on making the system more accessible and easier to use for people who normally don’t use or are averse to public transit. She preaches the importance of equality, accessibility and alleviating traffic congestion.

Although Richards comes from a planning background as opposed to a technical one, she is confident her past experiences have provided the right preparation to be successful in her latest role.

The former Montgomery County commissioner’s prior work experience includes serving as chair of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in 2017 and secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation from May 2015 to December 2019.

As PennDOT leader, one of her signature initiatives was the PennDOT Connects, which aimed to improve the public planning and engagement processes regarding large capital projects. Last year, she participated on an advisory council looking to identify transit solutions.

“I often say people peg me as [having been] working in the transportation industry or the rail industry or the bus industry now,” she said. “But I’m really in the people industry and I enjoy interacting with people, listening to them, seeing how we can make improvements.

“I want to make sure that people are supported in the ways to make them succeed. Everything I’ve done from working at engineering firms, working on transportation projects, working on park design projects, trail development projects as well as serving as a township supervisor in Whitemarsh Township, and as a county commissioner in Montgomery County, I just wanted to make an impact where I can help improve people’s quality of life,” she added.

Greater Accessibility

Richards, a 52-year-old alumnus of Brown University and University of Pennsylvania, acknowledges she doesn’t have all of the answers and continues to gather information to assist the 1 million daily riders who take SEPTA’s various routes.

“We can’t fix problems we don’t know about,” she said. “What’s unique is that not only do we have our customers, the people who ride our system, but we’re also helping people who don’t ride our system.

“[For] everyone who chooses SEPTA transit that could translate into another vehicle not on our roadways,” Richards added. “Making it easier for others to get around. We want to make sure that we use that influence with the best of intentions and in a way that helps as many people and help everybody get around in the way that they choose, giving people more access.

“We know the affordability of that access is also very important and equity plays a major role in every decision we make here,” she explained.

Addressing Diversity

When asked about the importance of diversity and inclusion, Richards says those concerns are at the core of everything she does and will be at the forefront of everything SEPTA discusses in making sure everyone has access and mobility options.

“I want to make sure everyone has access that includes minorities, [people of] all levels of income and it includes populations where English may be limited, the elderly and people with disabilities,” she said.

“We really have to take everyone’s needs and challenges into consideration and make sure that our system is as welcoming to every population of that in our region,” said the Whitemarsh Township resident. “I’ve been fortunate to work in diverse areas. When I say we want to make sure everyone has access and everybody has the mobility options and is able to get where they need to be I mean it. And I mean everyone.”

The King of Prussia Line

“I’m very well aware of what the King of Prussia Rail can bring to the King of Prussia area,” said Richards, who earned a master’s in regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania. “Helping employers and employees get to their business and really opening up opportunities for people.”

SEPTA has been planning the extension of the Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia’s commercial corridor since 2012. Last year, the estimated $1 billion project moved into the construction design phase for the 4.5-mile line.

“A dedicated transit line into the center of King of Prussia is vital to connecting suburban Philadelphia’s largest employment center and the East Coast’s largest shopping mall to rail,” the King of Prussia District, an advocacy group, says on its website.

“There are nearly 60,000 people working in King of Prussia, and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission expects that number to grow to 64,000 jobs by 2035. Of those employees, 95% commute by car,” it notes.

“Those of us who live near King of Prussia have seen how it’s growing in leaps and bounds. I feel like every time I’m there there’s a new restaurant, there’s a new retail place, there is a new place I want to check out, and right now the only way I can do that is by my car. So I sit in traffic as well as everyone else does,” Richards said about the rapid growth in the area.

The most congested traffic corridor in Pennsylvania is Interstate Highway 76 going from King of Prussia into Philadelphia. Giving people another option to make that trip and delivering them to the heart of where King of Prussia is booming and expanding will make a huge difference, regional advocates have said.

“Imagine how many cars we can take off the I-76,” Richards said in looking at the big picture for commuters.

Another push to ease congestion in the region is the expanding of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which began construction in 2019 on a 52-bed inpatient facility near its surgery center on South Goddard Boulevard.

“People travel to CHOP from other countries, from other states, and will be traveling to get these services. We want them to be able to get around as easily as possible,” Richards said.

“The King of Prussia Rail is going to give them access that they don’t currently have especially coming as visitors and we want other businesses just like CHOP to be attracted to this area,” she explained.

Moving Forward

Technology is helping major industries and that goes for SEPTA too.

“[Technology] is going to give us the flexibility that we don’t have right now,” Richards said.

“It is going to give us choices as we make future decisions that you don’t get with a token system or a paper system. They can be very limiting and so we are going to take a look at for instance may be at different times of the day,” she added.

In the future, fares may vary in leveraging the Key Card system to provide discounts to schoolchildren or looking at how people purchase their trips and provide incentives.

“We know that people who don’t have a lot of expendable cash on hand,” Richards acknowledged.

After four years without an increase, SEPTA raised the single-ride fare to between $2.25 and $2.50 in 2017, with a weekly pass climbing to $25.50 and a monthly pass to $96.

Richards said tracking, payment and other technologies could eventually help those who work at minimum wage or slightly over in softening the blow of the expense for a weekly or monthly pass.

“There’s a lot of options that we would have that would allow us to deliver a more equitable service and that’s what happens when you have this type of payment system,” she said referring to the Key Card system, which was the target of commuter complaints when it was first introduced in 2016.

“People need to get used to it. I know that there are growing pains,” Richards said.

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