Surge in SEPTA construction has led to friction over who gets the job done

Five years ago, a Pennsylvania transportation funding bill changed SEPTA’s fortunes dramatically. But it also has led to tension over which employees benefit from the resulting surge in work.

The influx of money from Act 89 boosted the number of capital projects from just eight in fiscal year 2014 to 51 the following year. In the last fiscal year, SEPTA had 30 active capital projects. Capital spending has more than doubled since 2014.

The dedicated state funding has allowed SEPTA to invest in projects important to riders, such as real-time technology and station improvements, but it also has paid for a lot of mundane work the average traveler may never notice — roofing, elevator installation, general maintenance. All that work has led to hiring a lot of contractors.

The outsourcing doesn’t sit well with SEPTA workers, who say the agency has turned to outsiders instead of using its own people to do work they could handle. The decision has meant less overtime and less opportunity for professional development through on-the-job experience for current employees, they say. They’re also concerned that the additional money hasn’t translated into a lot of new hiring.

“These are not jobs — these are careers here,” said Joe Coccio, secretary-treasurer of Transportation Workers Union Local 234, which represents 5,000 city transit workers. “We should be providing opportunities for these neighborhoods that support us.”

When the funding bill passed, SEPTA faced billions in capital needs, said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s deputy general manager and treasurer. The system was looking at $5 billion just to bring the system up to a state of good repair. Before 2014, SEPTA struggled to keep up with the bare minimum of needed work. Act 89, which gives SEPTA about $350 million for capital projects annually and which unions helped pass through lobbying efforts in Harrisburg, changed the equation.

SEPTA’s Capital Spending

The transit agency’s spending on capital projects has increased by 84 percent in the last five fiscal years, a result of the surge in state transportation funding since the passage of Act 89 in 2013.
Figures are in millions.
Staff Graphic

“They were really Band-Aid type initiatives,” he said. “We now have the wherewithal to do some major construction projects.”

Since Act 89, the number of engineering, construction, and maintenance workers in the TWU unit has grown from 266 to 300, SEPTA reported. But that increase doesn’t keep pace with all the new projects, the union says.

“They’re not creating permanent jobs here,” Coccio said. “They’re just feeding subcontractors.”

With more employees, union members said, more work —  from roofing projects to vehicle maintenance — could be done in-house. Coccio complained that the number of workers at one of the trolley repair shops had dropped from 120 to 63. The personnel there still perform maintenance on the trolley fleet, but some vehicles are sent off-site for repair.

SEPTA officials disputed the contention that its employees haven’t benefited from the surge in spending. They cited $43 million a year for infrastructure renewal and $75 million a year on vehicles for projects that are largely handled by SEPTA employees.

“They’re not doing it because they like us,” Coccio responded. “We are the only thing that stands in the way of them turning every job over to a contractor.”

The authority has approved an estimated 1,375 contracts for outside work in the last five years. Decisions about whether to keep work in-house depend on factors specific to each project, SEPTA officials said. Often, the authority uses a combination of employees and contractors on projects. Staff has the flexibility and expertise to perform long-term, complicated work such as platform improvements, Burnfield said, while a contractor may perform a specific task, such as installing an elevator at the same station.

Using contractors for certain projects also can be cheaper than keeping experts on staff, SEPTA officials said, pointing to a current project to put new roofs on SEPTA’s maintenance facilities as an example. It’s work that isn’t done year-round. It would make no sense, they argued, to keep enough people on staff to perform the roofing work if their skills aren’t consistently in demand.

“It’s only seasonal work, and in bad weather, you don’t do it,” Burnfield said. “Contractors have a flexibility with their workforce that we don’t have.”

That explanation isn’t persuasive to union members, who argue that SEPTA has enough buildings — in the hundreds — to warrant creating permanent jobs for more than the three roofers currently working there.

“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Coccio said. “At any given time, there are roofs that need to be replaced or repaired.”

The current roof-replacement project, in particular, raised the ire of union workers when they saw a worker for Joseph Jingoli & Son at the Norristown High Speed Line Shop in Upper Darby. The New Jersey building contractor employs the son of SEPTA Chairman Pasquale A. “Pat” Deon.

The company was subcontracted to supervise the roofing at that shop and other sites for $133,000. Deon said he typically is not aware of who subcontractors will be and did not know Jingoli would be involved with a contract he voted to approve, and added that his staff should have told him that his son’s employer was likely to be a subcontractor.

Pennsylvania’s Ethics Commission said board members should not vote on contracts if a close relative’s employer stands to benefit, even if it’s through a subcontractor, but that ignorance of who the subcontractors are is a plausible explanation.

So many new contracts means a lot of unfamiliar faces at SEPTA facilities, union members said, and these visitors don’t go through the same background checks and drug-testing that SEPTA employees face.

“You don’t know what to report because you don’t know who’s supposed to be on the property and who’s not supposed to be on the property,” Coccio said.

Everyone working on SEPTA property has to go through safety training and certification, said Robert Lund Jr., SEPTA’s assistant general manager of engineering, maintenance and construction, and it is checked every day a contractor does work for SEPTA. Some contractors do have to submit to drug and alcohol testing, though that is not universal, Lund said. Contractors generally do not submit to background checks, he said.

SEPTA relies on the private companies to ensure the quality of workers, officials said, though contractors have a project manager that oversees their work.