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Transportation community mourns Louis J. Gambaccini, a SEPTA legend and founder of NJ Transit

Louis J. Gambaccini, a former general manager of SEPTA and the first chairman of New Jersey Transit's board, died at his home in Skillman, N.J., on Aug. 19. He was 87 years old.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Gambaccini shaped transportation networks across some of the nation's densest metropolitan regions and mentored professionals who continue to influence daily commutes. The father of six served as the assistant director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey before founding NJ Transit in 1979 and then joining SEPTA in 1988, going on to serve as the Philadelphia area transit agency's longest-tenured general manager. In 1997, Rutgers University recruited Gambaccini to lead its National Transit Institute. At Rutgers, he helped establish the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center and another new research institute dedicated to the betterment of transit.

After more than two decades at the Port Authority, Gambaccini was appointed New Jersey's commissioner of transportation by then-Gov. Brendan Byrne. It was while leading NJ DOT that Gambaccini recognized the need for a dedicated transit agency to support the state’s aging bus and railroad networks, then in shambles. 

“Lou was an unrelenting champion for the creation of NJ Transit,” said Jerry Premo, the first director of NJ Transit. “Lou created a mindset, an expectation, for excellence -- excellence in service, excellence in physical assets, and excellence in people.”

Gambaccini joined SEPTA as general manager at a time when the agency was struggling. He took on a major rebuilding project that would continue until he retired in 1997. Dick Voith, a member of SEPTA’s board of directors at the time, remembered Gambaccini’s entrance as a welcome change.

“Lou restored credibility in SEPTA after serious missteps, including hiring a general manager that lasted only three weeks,” Voith said. “He made huge progress in attaining more capital funding to rebuild the SEPTA system, and was a tireless advocate for public transportation.”

Rohan Hepkins, now the mayor of Yeadon, Delaware County, worked closely with Gambaccini at SEPTA in the 1980s. The mayor remembered Gambaccini’s tenure as transformative for the beleaguered agency, and credited him with the development of SEPTA’s modern headquarters at 1234 Market St. Previously, offices were spread across multiple buildings, which created divides and slowed down communication, Hepkins said. Gambaccini also supported employees across the organization, from drivers to white-collar professionals, he recalled.

“He encouraged career advancement and self-improvement,” Hepkins said. “He encouraged all of the workforce, not just the managers, to go back to school and finish their degree.”

Hepkins is one example of many who took that advice. By the end of his time with SEPTA, Hepkins had gotten his master's degree, and Gambaccini had promoted him to head of customer service.

Today, Gambaccini’s legacy lives on within SEPTA’s executive offices. Jeffrey Knueppel, SEPTA’s current general manager, remembered how his predecessor helped him.

“For me personally, Lou played a big role in advancing my career,”  Knueppel said. “As a young engineer, he gave me a rare opportunity to lead a construction group. That was instrumental in helping shape my career.”

Premo called this mentoring of young people in public transportation one of Gambaccini’s “truly distinguishing features,” something that set those public servants up for the future.

Visitation services are scheduled for Thursday at Hillsborough Funeral Home in Hillsborough, N.J., with a wake beginning at 2 p.m. Thursday and a Mass at 10 a.m. Friday.

About the author

Evan Bowen-Gaddy

Evan Bowen-Gaddy is one of PlanPhilly's part-time reporters. He lives in South Philadelphia and enjoys covering data-driven stories as well as science stories. In the past, he has contributed to PublicSource, Pitt Med Magazine, and Drexel Magazine. This past year, he won a Student Keystone Press Award for some of his work with The Pitt News.  Follow him on Twitter @evanbowengaddy and email him at egaddy@whyy.org.



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