"What happened was outrageous," said board member Judith E. Harris. "We have no sense of how we're viewed out there. People are going to look askance at us."
Gambaccini stepped down yesterday as assistant executive director of Trans- Hudson Transportation, the New Jersey-New York authority that oversees the PATH rail system and bridges and tunnels between New Jersey and New York City. He starts June 1 as president of a New York public-policy think tank.
His resume listed 32 years of transit experience in New Jersey, including three years in which he doubled as chairman of the New Jersey Transit Corp. and as the state's commissioner of transportation. He was said to be particularly adept at handling the kind of political challenges that paralyzed Stead.
Gambaccini's name came up briefly last year in SEPTA's earlier search for a general manager. Some board members renewed their interest in him after Stead's resignation Dec. 19 following a stormy five weeks on the job. Stead left after complaining of political interference from suburban board members.
But Gambaccini recently accepted the presidency of the Institute of Public Administration, an 82-year-old nonprofit consulting firm that performs studies for governments. The think tank has done some papers on transportation.
The career move disappointed some SEPTA board members, who believed Gambaccini could have won quick support to become the new general manager. His appeal somehow crossed oft-divided city, state and suburban political lines.
"He has an awfully strong reputation in the industry for hands-on skills and, if possible, an even stronger reputation for political acumen," said H. Patrick Swygert, Gov. Casey's appointee to the SEPTA board.
Brian W. Clymer, a board member from Delaware County, said, "He probably would have been the best contender. In retrospect, maybe we should have gone straight to him the last time. His credentials were impeccable."
Agreed Harris: "He's well known and well thought of. He has a depth of experience."
Harris said the board did not give Gambaccini serious consideration last fall because he was reluctant to go through a competition that included an extensive round of interviews with the finalists. "His approach to it was, 'Look, I don't want to compete. If you want to talk to me, fine,' " Harris said.
In an interview, Gambaccini confirmed that he had been turned off by the competitive process. "I was not feeling I wanted to compete at this stage of my career," he said. "Frankly, I think it was a good call, given the developments."
He said he had mixed emotions about not being able to take the SEPTA job this time. Because of Stead's battles with the board, Gambaccini said, he expected members to give a new general manager a freer rein in running the system.
"Sometimes when there has been such turbulence, it's a good basis to get everyone galvanized, with unity and purpose," Gambaccini said. "It's a sobering experience. Hopefully everyone learns from it and it becomes a jumping-off point for progress. I think that things will turn around."
Four other finalists took part in the competition that was won by Stead. Like Gambaccini, three of them recently made other career commitments.
The four were: Theodore Weigle, head of Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority; Thomas Downs, former city manager of Washington; Frank Wilson, former SEPTA assistant general manager for operations, and Chuck Thomas, SEPTA's deputy assistant general manager for operations.
Weigle has extended his contract in Chicago for two years. Downs became head of New York's Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority this month. Wilson became senior deputy executive director for transportation for Chicago's transit system in January. Thomas still is with SEPTA.
Thomas declined to comment on his plans. Wilson could not be reached. Weigle and Downs expressed no interest in another round with SEPTA.
Weigle predicted that the political struggles in which Stead became involved would be a major stumbling block in attracting new candidates.
"Anybody they talk to nationally is going to be looking with a jaundiced view of what's going on," Weigle said. "It's tough enough when you're dealing with a system with a huge deficit, a tin-cup operation. When that's exacerbated, it just makes the job more challenging."
But Downs maintained that SEPTA still had appeal to candidates because of its tremendous size and its variety of services. "I thought it was one of the more exciting jobs," Downs said. "I don't think the last round would dissuade good professional talent. It would still be a very attractive job."
SEPTA's new board chairman, J. Clayton Undercofler 3d, said he believed top-flight candidates would view the transit system as an exciting challenge.