John Hanson, the new chief executive of the Delaware River Port Authority, has been spending Friday afternoons far from his Camden corner office overlooking Philadelphia and the river.
With a fluorescent green vest over his suit jacket, he has been at the crowded Eighth and Market station beneath Center City, herding passengers onto packed PATCO trains.
"There's room in this car," he called on a recent Friday as he and other DRPA executives joined PATCO workers to ease crowding caused by a construction project on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
As the train prepared to leave, with scores of passengers on the platform, Hanson told frustrated commuters: "There's another train on the way. It'll be here in two minutes."
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Hanson, an accountant who was the DRPA's chief financial officer until January, is taking a hands-on approach to the sometimes messy business of running commuter trains, toll bridges, and a politically connected organization that is under federal investigation for corruption.
Hanson, 54, took over as acting CEO in January, replacing John Matheussen, a former Republican state senator who was appointed a state Superior Court judge by Gov. Christie.
Hanson, a former Republican chairman of Camden County, was given the permanent job by the DRPA board last month with no raise in his $180,081 annual salary. Matheussen had received $219,474 a year.
He takes the top post at a challenging time.
The $103 million reconstruction of the PATCO tracks created chaos in its first weeks in January and February, as trains broke down, passengers were stranded, and cars were overcrowded.
That angered commuters already frustrated by months of broken escalators and elevators at PATCO stations.
And a federal grand jury is investigating the DRPA's past use of about $500 million for "economic development" spending on projects pushed by the agency's political patrons.
The DRPA is a bistate authority controlled by the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The agency, with an operating budget of $278 million this year, owns four toll bridges, PATCO, and a summer ferry.
Hanson, an Audubon, Camden County, native, is a longtime DRPA insider, having served as a New Jersey board member from 2002 to 2004, when he became chief financial officer.
He said he knows that means he has to establish his credibility as a change agent, both inside DRPA's headquarters and with commuters.
"We need to focus on our customers," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We need to think about things from the perception of the person receiving the output of our work."
That would be you, Madame Tollpayer or Mr. PATCO Rider. If you have ideas or complaints, Hanson said, email him at email@example.com
Known within the agency as a demanding boss who can lose his temper, Hanson also has a reputation for accepting criticism and fostering teamwork.
He is doing things his predecessors did not, such as occasionally riding PATCO to work and taking improvisational-comedy classes at the Philly Improv Theater.
On his first day on the job in January, Hanson convened PATCO officials and other top aides to revamp plans for the construction disruption. They changed train schedules, equipment placement, and construction hours.
Then Hanson sent executives to platforms to see how things worked.
Hanson said his exposure to commuters on the PATCO platforms helped him understand the need to put himself, and all DRPA workers, in the customer's place. He got an earful from upset riders, but when things went well, he also heard appreciation.
"It was an amazing feeling to see it work well and get positive response from the people," Hanson said. "It has transformed the way those people look at their jobs."
Hanson and his wife, Kelly, a nurse, live in Cherry Hill. He is the father of four children, ranging in age from 19 to 38.
He started his working life as a laborer and millwright at Radio Corp. of America in Camden after graduating from Audubon High School in 1978, worked his way up to management positions while attending classes at Camden County College.
Twelve years after high school, he graduated with an accounting degree from Drexel University, while continuing to work at RCA and its successor, General Electric Co.
In 1993, he was elected a borough commissioner in Audubon and served for four years before losing a bid for reelection.
Although his parents had been active Democrats in Camden, Hanson had entered politics as a Republican and in 1996 became the chairman of the Camden County GOP.
In 1998, he went to work for the Whitman administration at the state Commerce Commission, overseeing tourism, urban programs, maritime resources, and sustainable business.
Whitman's successor, Donald DiFrancesco, appointed Hanson to the DRPA board in December 2001, just before Democrat Jim McGreevey took office.
One of McGreevey's first appointments to the DRPA board was Jeffrey L. Nash, a Democratic Camden County freeholder who is the board's vice chairman.
Nash describes Hanson as a "smart, no-nonsense leader dedicated to public service."
Another fan is former Pennsylvania DRPA board member Rob Teplitz, who often clashed with DRPA leaders in his push to change the agency.
"I am very encouraged . . . particularly by John's commitment to fiscal responsibility, transparency, and serving the taxpayers and customers of the agency," said Teplitz, now a Democratic state senator.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a DRPA board member, initially balked at giving Hanson the top job permanently, insisting on a national search to replace Matheussen. But last month he supported Hanson's selection, after board interviews with five candidates from among 45 applicants.
The challenges for Hanson, in addition to PATCO, include a $1.6 billion debt that absorbs half of the agency's annual operating budget and a workforce whose nonunion members have not had a raise in five years.
Hanson said the agency, which borrowed $487 million in December, is on a path to pay for major repairs and construction out of revenues instead of borrowing more in the future.
That pay-as-you-go budgeting will "relieve the upward pressure on tolls," Hanson said.
Hanson said he knows very little about an ongoing investigation by the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia of the DRPA's economic-development spending spree, in which the agency doled out about $500 million over 14 years for museums, sports stadiums, and board members' favored institutions.
Hanson distances himself from that spending, which largely ended in 2011, saying the economic-development money was borrowed before he arrived and was controlled by the board members while he was chief financial officer.
"It was not until I became CFO that we began to talk about what was going on with economic development," Hanson said. "I focused on the operating budget and debt management.
"I had disagreements with board members about our approach . . . I always advocated for fiscal prudence."
He noted that financial rating services boosted DRPA ratings last year, citing improved financial management.
In a memo last month to DRPA employees, Hanson described his notion of being a good caretaker of public assets:
"I believe we all need to connect to the broader purpose of stewardship here at the authority," Hanson wrote. "Excellence in stewardship begins with building credibility and trust."
Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com