SEPTA defends luxury travel for executives on business

Posted: July 02, 2010

SEPTA officials Thursday defended the use of top-end travel for some executives' trips to Washington and South Korea.

The issue surfaced as SEPTA riders began paying higher fares on buses, trains, subways, and trolleys. Fare increases, ranging from 6.9 percent for bus and subway tokens (now $1.55, up from $1.45) to 33 percent for transfers (now $1, up from 75 cents), took effect Thursday.

Since 2008, SEPTA has spent $19,887 for four round-trip tickets to Seoul, where the agency's new Regional Rail Silverliner V train cars are being built by Hyundai-Rotem. On three of the trips, general manager Joseph Casey and assistant general manager Luther Diggs flew business class or first class, SEPTA travel records show.

The agency also spent $2,210 on train tickets for officials' trips to Washington during the same period. (One $579 trip included SEPTA board members, Casey, and assistant general managers.) Five of the 12 round trips included travel on the Acela Express, Amtrak's premium train.

The expenses were first reported by Fox29.

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said the Acela trips were necessitated by tight schedules. He said that in most cases, SEPTA officials took cheaper Amtrak Regional trains to Washington.

The Acela trips cost about twice as much as the Regional trips, with a typical one-way ticket costing $113 as opposed to $63. The Acela trains typically shave from 11 to 30 minutes off the two-hour trip.

Maloney said Casey and Diggs had to fly to South Korea on short notice to deal with problems in the construction of the Silverliners, so cheap tickets were not available. He said the long trans-Pacific flights warranted business or first-class seats for comfort.

"Under federal travel regulations, on any flight over 14 hours, they can fly business class," Maloney said. "These were 17-hour flights. And in one case, Luther did it all in 72 hours."

The Seoul expenses were paid out of the agency's capital budget, which is paying for the 120 Silverliners at a cost of $274 million, Maloney said.

SEPTA observers were divided in their responses to the spending.

Jerry Silverman, a retired Philadelphia schoolteacher and former chair of SEPTA's citizen advisory committee, said SEPTA "should be ashamed."

He said, "They don't seem to think that doubling the cost of travel matters at all." Silverman cited the current $165 cost of an Acela ticket for a trip that takes 1 hour and 42 minutes, compared to a Regional ticket that costs $88 for a trip that takes 1 hour and 49 minutes.

"Spending double the money to save seven minutes is insane and irresponsible," Silverman said.

Tony DeSantis, president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers and a frequent critic of SEPTA, said he was not alarmed by the expenses.

"In the larger scheme of things," he said of the travel to Seoul, "that's really minor.

"So they fly first-class to Korea? Big deal," said DeSantis. "There are much more important things to worry about with SEPTA."


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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