SEPTA, the Token Jesters

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 47 | Posted Aug. 31, 2010

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Photo by Robyn John

After years of foot-dragging and extending contract deadlines, SEPTA announced last week it would finally take a much-needed step toward the 21st century. The authority says it’s time to fund new payment technologies, including “Smart Cards”: SEPTA-issued, wallet-sized plastic that can be filled and refilled with cash, instead of buying tokens or a monthly/weekly pass. These new technologies, says SEPTA, would “modernize fare-collection methods” by employing digital-age gadgets not seen in Philly, well, ever.

“We’re hoping to jump two-to-three generations in technology,” says SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney. “Tokens go back to the 19th century. I believe SEPTA is the only major transit system in the U.S.—perhaps the world—that is still using tokens.”

There’s one problem.

SEPTA, which relies primarily on state funds for its operations, has a habit of saying one thing, doing another and making promises it can’t keep. A look at the authority’s never-ending delays in plan funding and contracts and how it spends what little money it has, gives us no indication that this shift into modernity is coming any time soon. And though the authority’s decisions are often clouded in secrecy, it’s probably a lot further away than SEPTA cares to admit.

Back in November 2008, a year after SEPTA’s initial announcement to go tokenless, the authority finally seemed destined for greatness. It put out a public call for proposals for its Smart Card system. A contract to begin a full revamp of SEPTA’s payment methods would be awarded by April 2009, and would likely cost upward of $100 million: Money SEPTA conceivably had in its share of the state budget. But the project hit a wall due to inadequate funding, extensions were made on final proposal awards and SEPTA provided virtually no details as to why. In March 2009, the April deadline was extended to May. On May 5, it was extended to June 23. On June 24, it was reportedly extended to Aug. 18. On Aug. 21, the deadline became Sept. 30. Now it’s 2010 and we’re not getting any younger.

But we did get an answer, finally. On March 12, 2010, SEPTA came clean, announcing its financial situation was worse than originally thought. Act 44 (the Transportation Reform Act), which was passed by the state Legislature in 2007 and established the Pennsylvania Public Transportation Trust Fund—$88.3 billion over a 50-year period for Pennsylvania transportation maintenance—was on the brink of a disaster. Part of Act 44’s funding relied on converting route I-80, which runs through the center of the state, into a toll road. This had yet to be done and if it failed completely, the authority would have to cut $110 million from its budget for fiscal year 2011.

Because of the route’s interstate status, Gov. Ed Rendell needed the federal government to OK the tolls. Throughout the spring, he’d lobby the Obama Administration to get it. The potential money raised from tolling the interstate would have paid for the Smart Card system and given PennDot the cash it needed to repair about 6,000 miles of road and at least 5,600 deficient bridges throughout Pennsylvania. Another $450 million would have been devoted toward other SEPTA capital projects, such as revamping the City Hall Station, which Maloney admits is “disgraceful,” “dark and smelly” and “needs a total renovation.” Rendell appeared confident they’d get the funding. But on April 6, the Obama Administration killed the idea of tolling I-80.

That didn’t stop Rendell from appealing the government’s decision. With a challenge to the feds still pending, SEPTA remained at least publicly confident the tolls would be a go. And even if they weren’t, we were repeatedly assured a Plan B was covertly in place to fund the new technologies.

On April 21, the SEPTA Youth Advisory Council, a student group created to better explain SEPTA’s systems to college-age Philadelphians, held a meeting at Penn in which Customer Service Manager Nilda Rivera-Frazier assured students that in spite of SEPTA having to “scale back improvements” with the loss of potential I-80 money, the new technologies were still “on the way.” When pressed about a Plan B, just in case the appeal for tolling I-80 didn’t go through, Frazier said she couldn’t yet reveal those options to the group.

After Rendell’s and others’ further attempts to toll I-80 proved fruitless, SEPTA would announce any and all updates with regard to updating its payment processes were put on hold, indefinitely.

But then ... wait for it ... on May 23, the authority changed its tune without warning, revealing a winning bid for new payment technology would be announced in June. SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams told reporters that in spite of threats to postpone a Smart Card system indefinitely, a deal had been reached with a funder, who had submitted “innovative” financing proposals that would break up the cost of construction “over a period of time”—though Williams wouldn’t give any further details about the $100 million system or the funder’s identity. Plan B existed, maybe, but there was no way to confirm or deny it. SEPTA essentially asked us to do the impossible: Trust them.

But the emotional rollercoaster persisted. June came and went. No Smart Card announcement.

In the meantime, the authority has been taking different routes to earn some extra dough, like a plan to allow advertising on the sides of trolleys and the El—in what’s being referred to by Jeff Randazzo, who handles advertising for SEPTA and PATCO, as “Phase One.” That also includes renaming Pattison Station AT&T Station, which will be the only train stop in Philadelphia that doesn’t refer to a local street, section or landmark. The naming rights initiative is part of a deal SEPTA made back in 2007, when Act 44 was passed and gave “marching orders … for us to use every means available to increase our outside income, particularly with advertising,” says Maloney. Renaming Pattison will net SEPTA a drop-in-the-bucket $5 million.

And you can’t make money without raising fares. On July 1, the first day of Fiscal year 2011, tokens went from $1.45 to $1.55. Weekly passes increased by $1.25 to $22. Monthly passes went from $78 to $83. Regional rail prices went up 8 percent. Paper transfers are now a dollar and daytime weekday off-peak train fares were eliminated.

Here’s something creative: In May, SEPTA sought to squeeze some cash out of BP Oil, claiming the company, as well as Halliburton and Transocean, “were all negligent” in building and running the infamous leaky rig in the Gulf of Mexico. SEPTA says it invested part of its pension funds in BP and sued to recover the more than $7.8 million it says was lost when BP’s stock tanked in the wake of the spill. The case is tied up in the courts.

And while SEPTA’s plans for massive Smart Card spending remain in secrecy, it has at the same time taken an up-front approach to smaller, bizarrely timed projects.

SEPTA dropped its color-coded R-label system and renamed its regional rail lines by their end destinations, saying this would simplify traveling. It cost $50,000.

SEPTA also introduced some Internet “features,” like a ReadyNotifyPA emergency text and email system that’ll send you updates if trains and buses are running late, similar to what SEPTA has already done through Twitter and its RSS feed. And then there’s the Chat Now service: From 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends, log onto and have an instant-messenger chat with a live SEPTA customer-service representative.

These small projects and others like them have been part of an ongoing venture for the past decade, says Maloney, and are part of SEPTA’s $100 million control center that can track each bus and train within the city, to the inch.

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Comments 1 - 47 of 47
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1. CJ said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 12:17AM

“Septa is dealing with an ever-greedy, outdated and unnecessary union. The union KILLS Septa, no matter the intelligence of the management.”

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2. BP said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 08:10AM

“AGree with CJ. How can SEPTA spend money on capital projects when their operating budget pays too much toward pensions and healthcare for too many workers. It's time to put the union in its place then run SEPTA like it needs to be run. Don't the Democrats at the Weekly understand that the union is only serving itself and the entire region is suffering because of union greed and waste?”

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3. Anonymous said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 09:13AM

“My favorite are the workers in stations who don't make change or sell tokens. They just take the unsuspecting tourist's $10 bill for that awesome state-of-the-art ride. They and SEPTA are a disgrace to Philadelphia and embarrass us every time a visitor uses the system. Philadelphia deserves better.”

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4. Blayer said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 09:31AM

“I grew up riding the rails of North Jersey. Very nice clean trains! Have you seen the new Nj double decker trains! Very Nice! Then there's septa. The crappy stations and trains i've ever ridden. There are lese people in Seattle and they have a way better transit system then philly. Septa is shit! I refuse to ride in there trains. Boycott Septa! Ride a Bike!”

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5. Anonymous said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 10:22AM

“My FAVORITE is the booth attendent at the 5th street Market/El stop who puts a brick where you can slide your transfer/money through his window.
Doesn't want to be disturbed...or have to actually work.
I've encountered good SEPTA workers but the bad and mediocre outweigh them.”

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6. mary said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 12:11PM

“if monthly (zone 1) passes only went up to $83 then why am I paying $91?
Someone's numbers are wrong...”

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7. Anonymous said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 12:32PM

“SEPTA needs to get out of the dark ages. the trains are laughable, the busses should be hybrids, and the customer service is hit-or-miss. but they're the only game in town, so we're at their mercy.

@mary: are you using a regional rail pass? the monthly transpass for subway, el, bus, and trolley travel is $83. the regional rail pass is different.”

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8. Ray said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 03:32PM

“It was reported during the Septa strike that the cheerful, friendly, unionized Septa employees make over $26/hour to operate the subway cashier booths. $26/hour to sit there and be rude.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 09:27PM

“This article promises more than it delivers too. OK, we get it--the writer really, really wants SEPTA to have an automated fare system. But is it truly more vital than projects like replacing ancient wiring in a subway station, as he implies? Bottom line: The transportation funding fell through, so SEPTA doesn't have the money for a state-of-the-art, enormously expensive fare system and is looking for creative ways to finance it. They can't simply take tens of millions of dollars and spend it on something for which it wasn't approved by the feds and state. Funny cover photo though.”

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10. roses madrigale said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 06:14AM

“This will never be a first class city until if EVER septa gets its act together!
You miss the last train out to the burbs and too bad!
The R5 does not even run on Sundays all the way out to the Hinterlands of Downingtown-
the theaters, galleries, museums and ball parks are very dependent on Septa!!
I was shocked at the fare hike-we need to get Septa back or get some competition!”

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11. Bastranz said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 07:49AM


Um...SEPTA's been buying nothing but hybrid buses since 2008, and they also purchased hybrids in 2002 and 2004 as well. They just don't LOOK any different from the rest of the diesel fleet except for subtle design changes (battery) and the lastest batch has a refreshed design...kinda.

You need money to improve transit, and far too many people are so willing to starve the transportation industry yet expect the world to be delivered to their doorstep. Besides, Philadelphia is a historic city so why not have a historic fare collection system (just kidding!). You want a bad example of fare policy, just go across the river to Jersey...

SEPTA customer service is getting better...although it sure has far to go. Sadly, the onus falls on the front line employees...and many of them could care less :(.”

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12. cookiebass said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 08:27AM

“Its about time that this subject has been fully exposed.
The system has been broken for a long time and it needs
a major overhaul, more than that, like anything that works well,
Septa needs better management. Competent management.
Please keep writing and update us on this huge problem for the

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13. Ben said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 08:35AM

“SEPTA has problems, but we have one of the best rapid transit networks in the country and don't appreciate it. The reason riders like Rose Madrigale can complain about lack of Sunday service is because the weekday service is so extensive. It's kind of funny that they're basically saying they hate SEPTA but want more of it. Few areas in the country have such far-flung service at all.”

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14. Sandy Smith said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 12:09PM

“"Competition" for SEPTA? It and every other mass transit agency in the country already has it. It's called the car.

The fact is, moving people around cities in mass conveyances has been a money-losing proposition for quite some time now; private operators may run local transit systems under a contract with a public agency, but since the 1970s at least, no major US city has had a privately owned mass transit system.

As long as mass transit remains a money loser, there won't be any competition for your local transit system.”

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15. William said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 02:52PM

“First of all, why should the people of Northern Central PA have to pay a toll for I-80 and have the money go towards SEPTA? They don't use SEPTA at all so they shouldn't have to pay to fund it. I think Philly and the surrounding counties which SEPTA serves should figure out a way to come with the money for improvements for SEPTA. Plus them saying they need money to repair 6000 miles of roads and 5600 bridges is a bunch of BS because when i drive on I 476, I 95, etc there's constant construction going and you see one guy doing work and the 15 others just standing around do nothing so they can milk it out as long as they can. People are sick and tired of Federal,state and local goverments complaining they need more money and want to raise taxes have budget impasses but of course they have money to vote themselves hefty pay raises and more perks. I sure if someone proposed to raise SEPTA fares and extra 50 cents to pay for the upkeep of I-80, I'm sure everyone here would complaining.”

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16. Bob, Westmont,NJ said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 03:14PM

“I like the statement where it said if Smart Card was funded tomorrow it would take at several years to complete installation.

Translation: It will take several years because every greedy politician and their buddies who they award contracts to take their cut of the pie and then will say its still not enough money so lets raise taxes and vehicle fees.”

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17. Jamie Proud Liberal said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 03:53PM

“William, I have to respectfully disagree with you. My wife and I live in Southampton and we have a house and we pay school taxes and we don'
t have children,but do we complain about that? No. Its our obligation to pay our school taxes because all the children in our school district benefit from it. I don't know why people have this attitude that just because they don't use something,they shouldn't have to pay for it. Those people up in North Central who you defend are obligated to as fellow Pennsylvanians to pay a toll on I-80 and help repair and fund a new fare system for Septa just as we are obligated to pay our school tax. We are entitled to that money. We don't mind paying more school taxes to help the chrildren, so North Central shouldn't mind I-80 tolls to help us here in Philly.”

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18. Gary said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 04:03PM

“Here's my translation of the story.

The taxpayers get royally screw up the ass with KY jelly by the politicians again.”

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19. Carolyn The Transvestite said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 04:07PM

“I could care less about a new fare system. Just provide better service and have more security so I can feel safe when I get all dolled up and go out and ride all dressed up as Carolyn.”

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20. Billy said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 04:16PM

“Yo Jamie,

Since you seem to think that people should pay for something they don't use and help the children,etc, I have an idea. When my buddies and are low on money and want to go out to the bar drinking, would you help us out and buy us drinks all night?”

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21. Steve said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 04:22PM

“Hi Carolyn. I'm Steve,by day I'm a carpenter and by day and at night I'm a male to female transvestite who goes by the name Susan. Feels great to get all dressed up,make up,wig and look good. I like to go to Sisters and pick up some lesbians. We should get together sometime,share tips and go out.”

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22. Devil's Advocate said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 04:29PM

“When I go into a seafood restaurant, I always ask if their shrimp came from the Gulf Of Mexico and if they say yes. I order my shrimp extra oily. MMM MMM GOOD.”

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23. Pete said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 04:39PM

“Speaking of the City Hall stop on the subway, they could at least powerwash it at night and deodorize to smell better. Also start cracking down on people who trash it up. I was coming home from work at 11pm one night and seen a homeless guy pull his pants down, squat his ass over the edge of the southbound express platform and take a really bad dump on the tracks. That was so nasty. It stuck up the station. I couldn't wait till my train came.”

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24. Uncle Charlie said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 04:54PM

“@ Pete,

"Gotta go,gotta go,gotta go right now"

Sorry, I know that must've been digusting to witness but I just couldn't resist that jingle from that commercial.”

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25. Harry said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 05:03PM

“Dear Jamie Proud Liberal,
I don't know how to break this to you but you're wife and I had sex numerous times on empty SEPTA busses at Frankford depot. She told what a whiney wimp you are and how you can"t satisfy her in bed. She was awesome especially when she got on all fours and did her doggy style.”

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26. Harry said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 05:09PM

“Dear Jamie Proud Liberal,

By the way,next time when your wife calls you and tells you she's working late, you'll know where she's at,who she's with and what she is doing.”

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27. Uncle Charlie said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 05:15PM

“@ Harry,

I love your 2 posts. I'm sitting here LMAO!”

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28. Bert said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 05:25PM

“Every time I ride Septa, my hemrroids act up for some strange reason.”

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29. I.P. Freely said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 08:53PM

“I know one thing they should really clean the stations and concourses. Everytime I walk down there,especially in this heat, the stench of urine is unbearable.”

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30. Vincent Vega said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 09:01PM

“I think SEPTA should just close the underground part of the Market Frankford el and except for Fern Rock, close the underground part of the Broad St Subway, and put them all above ground on an elevated structure and connect the undergorund tunnels to the sewer system and turn it into one giant sewer system to flush all the trash and filth out of the city including the crooked politicians.”

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31. Mike Yanneti said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 09:05PM

“SEPTA is crying about money? What did they do with the money the received from AT&T for the station naming rights and the money received from "World's Toughfest Fixes" ?”

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32. Jeff Bath said... on Sep 2, 2010 at 09:12PM

“Here's an excellent idea for SEPTA to raise money. Why not sell the nmaimg rioghts to the El and Broad St Subway? The Wells Fargo Bank Market Frankford Line and the Bank Of America Broad St Subway.”

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33. Anonymous said... on Sep 3, 2010 at 08:31PM

“SEPTA gives a whole new meaning* to the word 'dysfunctional'. Delays and more delays getting new rail cars because of bad planning and crappy workmanship. Fare gouging. Renaming stations without warning. The highest transfer charge in the country. And now, a not-so-smart card system that (at least as planned) will let people ride a train for free one way and go back the other on a much cheaper bus or subway. But NOT ONE of our so-called "leaders" - the mayor, his transportation chief, local reps, or even wonderful Gov. Eddie - can find the spine to go down to 1234 Market Street and tell the drones who work there that they can either shape up or get replaced by people from the 10% unemployment lines. A hundred years ago Lincoln Steffens got it right when he called the city "corrupt and contented". And he's still right.

(*) Speaking of meanings, the expression in several posts is supposed to be "COULDN'T care less". After all, if you COULD care less, you've got farther to go, LOL!”

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34. Ben said... on Sep 3, 2010 at 09:13PM

“William: It mystifies me when people presumably from our area stick up for the I-80 users' "right" to a free ride, when we've been carrying them for decades. How about defending the PA Turnpike users who are forced to pay hundreds of millions for projects all over the state? How can PennDot simply decree that the Turnpike Commission has to raise tolls to pay tribute to the state? And the Turnpike is much more of a commuter road than I-80 is, so the impact on local residents is even greater.”

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35. William said... on Sep 4, 2010 at 04:04PM

“Ben: Well it mystifies me that my fellow Philadelphians think that someone who does not have use a service should pay for it. First the I-80 users are not getting a "free ride" as you say. They are paying for it through tax on gas. Second the Turnpike tolls go to maimtain the Turnpike, so if you don't want to pay, take the back roads. Also the Turnpike connects Pittsburgh & Philly and has alot more traffic where I-80 doesn't have as much traffic and is basicially in the middle of nowhere. As I said before Philly and the surrounding counties which SEPTA serves should lobby their politicians to come with a way to fund SEPTA.”

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36. Anonymous said... on Sep 4, 2010 at 09:07PM

“"Well it mystifies me that ... someone who does not have use a service should pay for it."
Hellooooo ... As incompetent as SEPTA is, without it there'd be a couple of hundred thousand more cars on the road every day and people would be screaming because of near-complete gridlock. Even if you never set foot on a bus or train, all those people who do are making life easier for you by NOT driving.

And while we're discussing who uses what services, we all pay taxes for loads of things we don't use directly but that benefit all of us. I graduated from public school 40 years ago and my kids got out 10 years ago but I still pay school taxes because it's better to have an educated (or at least semi-educated) population than not. I pay federal gas taxes for roads that I never use, too - should I demand that Los Angeles give me back the 5 feet of I-405 that I paid for?”

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37. Greg said... on Sep 7, 2010 at 11:33AM

“Audit SEPTA. Not one more dime in State money until someone can crack both the books and riderships figures.”

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38. South Philly Old Timer said... on Sep 7, 2010 at 05:31PM

“The problem with SEPTA is the place is full of inept employees only hired because this country forces companies to hire people of a particular race or sex because of the undemocratic Affirmative Action laws. They need to get rid of the dead weight at SEPTA, just like they need to get of the dead weight running the City of Philadelphia.”

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39. Bianca said... on Sep 9, 2010 at 04:45PM

“My take: the best game in town is to carpool, walk and ride a bike.

I depend on public transportation and a bicycle to get around, and haven't had a car the 7 years I've lived in Philadelphia. If we all found another way around a few times a week, the crunch would come down on SEPTA a little harder, as they aren't being rewarded for irresponsible behavior with your money.

Being the only game in town is a double-edged sword, and no one has touched on that idea. If you slowly cut a service off, they will need to be in YOUR best interest for THEIR best interest. And their best interest may suddenly have different parameters. Different parameters that will actually benefit the city.

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40. Ned said... on Sep 10, 2010 at 03:04PM

“I'm from Lock Haven,PA and I agree with one poster that we up here shouldn't have to pay for your incompetent transit system. Philadelphia is a joke up here and almost the rest of the state can't stand your corrupt politics. Philadelphia is a drag on the state and PA should give it to New Jersey, amnother loser state with corrupt and incompetent politicians. Philadelphis & New Jersey, perfect together.”

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41. the activist said... on Oct 7, 2010 at 01:46PM

“Amazing that SEPTA officials can justify spending $108,000 per additional parking space for the Jenkintown-Wyncote rail station and yet City Hall Station is "dark and smelly," the substation at Wayne Junction is ready to fail knocking out rail service to the northern lines - per Joe Casey's testimony, Wayne Junction Station is decrepit, rail lines have been removed which would facilitate more passenger miles etc.
Where is the public outrage and the political will to have oversight for our tax dollars being spent by SEPTA's antiquated, bureaucratic, out of touch with reality management??”

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42. Barney McDevitt said... on Oct 13, 2010 at 02:57PM

“He worked on the 13 trolley and raised his 5 sons & 1daughter when he retired he moved North Wildwood and his 1st son Bernard was a priest in Little Rock, Arkansas. He became a Monsignor.”

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43. Anonymous said... on Aug 27, 2011 at 07:50PM

“here we are again people that don't understand a thing making comments about septa and the union. I work for septa and by the way i am a cashier and you people sound like a bunch of fools. Get a job with septa and see if you need the union. I bet you will. Walk a mile in our shoes first then ask why don't they make change in every booth. Its not rocket science its common sense so figure it out. Bet you can't.

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44. Anonymous said... on Aug 27, 2011 at 08:12PM

“For the jerk talking about black people lets face it this ain't your ancestories land so watch your mouth and your tone because a long list of the shit your people did can come out. A there is only one race and that is the human race.

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45. Dan Jonas said... on Oct 14, 2011 at 09:26PM

“To all the whiners whining about money,STFU and deal with losers!”

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46. Anonymous said... on Nov 9, 2011 at 11:48AM

“#42 -would that "need for a union" be protecting lazy, rude, and incompetent workers?

McDonalds can make change at every cash register - why can't you?”

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47. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 11:59AM

“By the way septa releases fiscal budget summaries on their website, so do a little digging and you'll see where the money goes. As for why you need a union when you work for septa? Because in any corporation your going to have people who try to get over on one another. Do you think it's safe for an employee to work in the track area alone without a watchmen? It's not and roadway employees have died by doing so when given direct orders by septa managers. Then Septa management tried to cover it up and say it was a suicide. So to answer your question. Yes you need a union at septa. By the way most people who don't agree with unions generally have what's called union envy because they're mistreated at their workplace. I think they should organize a union”


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