SEPTA Shuts Down Route 15 Streetcar

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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Brookviile-rebuilt SEPTA PCC car at 11th & Girard, July 3, 2012.

For the second time in less than four weeks, a streetcar line in the United States has bitten the dust. This one is Philadelphia’s Route 15, operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), and which ran for 8.4 miles along Girard Avenue, an east-west street about one mile north of Market Street.

Not only did Route 15 run for the last time on Friday night, Jan. 24, but SEPTA gave little notice of its demise, having posted a “service advisory” on its website the preceding Tuesday, but no press release. The word got out, though. Streetcar advocates on the local scene, and from as far away as San Francisco, were appalled, and they heated up the blogs and other media with their concerns.

As the old year ended, so did the 235-day run of the Loop Trolley on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis. As the new year began, Railway Age reported that line’s demise (A Streetcar Thought Undesirable, posted Jan. 3). Now the latest line to fold is the venerable Girard Avenue line, which almost made the century-and-a-half mark. The story may not be over for either of those lines; it is possible that they could come back. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Wednesday, Jan. 22 that Taulby Roach, head of Bi-State Metro Transit, is making the pitch in suburban St. Louis County to operate the line. Similarly, SEPTA says that the loss of the cars on Girard Avenue is temporary; only for the next year or two. Whatever SEPTA claims about the trolleys returning someday, local advocates refuse to believe it.

Friday, Jan. 24 was a good day for a trolley ride, even to observe a sad event. It was a mild winter day; sunny with temperatures in the 40s. Local transit advocates were out in force, while other Philadelphians turned out to take one last ride on the historic vehicles that had run on Girard Avenue since 1947. Charles Bode of the Philadelphia Trolley Coalition and a Board member of RUN, the Rail Users’ Network (along with this writer), summed up the context of the day and the ride. He told Railway Age: “This is the last place you can come to for a historic 1950s-style trolley abandonment.”

This view from a cemetery of Route 15 is appropriate. Jack May photo.

Route 15 began in 1859 as a horse car line on the Richmond and Schuylkill River Passenger Railway. It was electrified in 1895 and later extended, and it ran until 1992. It came back from the grave on Sept. 5, 2005, and its second incarnation lasted until Jan. 24, 2020. The #15 was unique among Philadelphia’s surviving streetcar lines, because of its operation and its equipment. It was the last line in the city that did not go into the subway under Market Street in Center City and under the Schuylkill River going west. It ran in mixed traffic along Girard Avenue, eastward from 63d Street in West Philadelphia. It then proceeded along Richmond Street to the Richmond & Westmoreland Loop. The eastern portion was eliminated in 2012, when the terminal became a newly constructed loop called the “Northern Liberties Loop” at Frankford and Delaware Avenues in the Fishtown neighborhood, on a short segment that branched off the old line at Front Street. The route connected with the Market Street Line, the Broad Street Subway and the #10 trolley on Lancaster Avenue.

Brookville-restored PCC cars for San Francisco MUNI.

The line was also unique in the city, because it operated with Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) cars, which were popular in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, and first ran in Philadelphia in 1938. The nostalgic streamlined cars still run in San Francisco, Boston and Kenosha, Wis., and in limited service in San Diego. They were also recently re-introduced in El Paso, but it appears unlikely that they will ever run in Philadelphia again. They retained the historic color scheme of the Philadelphia Transportation Company: green on the bottom, cream on top, and sporting a narrow maroon stripe around the middle.

SEPTA spent $100 million rehabilitating the tracks, trolley wires and cars. The cars were built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1947, restored and upgraded by the Brookville Equipment Co. and renamed “PCC II” cars. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004, the impending return of the line spurred upgrades to some of the neighborhoods along the route. Then-mayor and later governor Ed Rendell pushed for the line to be restored, and some advocates do not believe that it would have returned without that political pressure. Transit historian Scott Maits told Railway Age that Rendell took the unusual step of vetoing SEPTA’s budget to force the agency to restore the line. For his own part, Maits lined up support among businesses and institutions in the neighborhood for the restoration 15 years ago. Today he consults for the LA-21 CDC, a community development corporation for the Lancaster Avenue corridor in West Philadelphia. He believes that historic streetcars spur economic development, and he has a plan for a tourist-oriented trolley line, if he can talk SEPTA into establishing it.

SEPTA PCC cars during rebuilding at Brookville Equipment in 2004. Blaine Hays photo.

The end of trolley service came suddenly, with no notice from SEPTA until only four days before its actual demise. Before SEPTA made the announcement on its website, the impending elimination was reported in the city’s popular media, including the Inquirer newspaper and WHYY, the local NPR station. It was also the subject of numerous posts by local advocates, and Railway Age heard about it through that branch of the grapevine. SEPTA did not issue a press release announcing it.

Still, Inquirer transportation reporter Jason Laughlin had asked the question “Will Philly’s Vintage Trolleys Survive?” in an article published slightly more than four years ago, on Dec. 15, 2015. Laughlin started by saying: “With classic curves and vintage green and cream paint schemes, SEPTA’s PCC trolley cars are Philly’s transit past brought back to bustling, clanging life on Girard Avenue’s Route 15.” However, he continued: “Plans to start replacing SEPTA’s entire 159-vehicle trolley fleet in five years risk sending these 1948 originals to a second retirement.” It now appears that Laughlin’s prediction has come to pass.

Local advocates, as well as others who live elsewhere and have ties to the city, were outraged when SEPTA’s announcement came. SEPTA claimed that one of the reasons for shutting the line down was a lack of operable vehicles. Jack May of Montclair, N.J., is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, who now advocates for transit in the Garden State through the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP). May said: “It is hard to believe that more than half the fleet of PCCs suddenly became unfit for service. I’ve been told that by now every car has been to the Woodland shops and back a number of times. And only now it becomes known that there are serious problems? I don’t get it.”

Given Brookville’s positive reputation for restoring streetcars (most recently, six PCCs that once ran in El Paso and have returned to service in that city), they find SEPTA’s stated reasons difficult to believe, especially since SEPTA gave so little notice to the public before replacing all the trolleys on the line with buses. Carl Jackson, who manages the El Paso PCC operation, agrees. He called SEPTA’s position and the discontinuance of trolley service on the #15 line “bizarre.”

Jackson does not see a reasonable basis for SEPTA to kill the trolley operation. “They have so much invested in infrastructure and rolling stock,” he told Railway Age. He compared streetcars, including PCCs, to the buses that have replaced them: “They are taking a zero-pollution and zero-noise vehicle and replacing it with a dirty, noisy bus. That makes no sense. The streetcar has a smoother ride, too.”

It appears that at least part of the explanation is that SEPTA has a reputation for opposing streetcars and preferring buses for local service. May posted this quote from a 2018 SEPTA report (available at http://septa.org/service/bus/network/pdf/2018-philadelphia-choices-report-executive-summary.pdf) that extolled the benefits of buses while generally disparaging trolleys: “Girard trolley is a barrier to travel. Many people love the trolleys in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, they also have two disadvantages: In mixed traffic, they get stuck more easily than buses do. Incidents that happen in their lane shut down the trolley service, where a bus could easily go around them. Where the rails end, everyone has to get off. This is not always the most logical location for passenger trips.”

After conceding that the Subway-Surface Cars deliver benefits that militate toward continuing their use, the report continued: “The Girard trolley (#15) has the disadvantages without the advantages. In particular, the west end at 63rd Street narrowly misses serving the 69th Street Transportation Center, and thus cuts off Girard passengers from a huge range of possible suburban connections. This problem could be fixed either by extending the Girard trolley to 69th Street Transportation Center or, far less expensively, by converting the trolley into a high-frequency bus line. In addition to the ability to run a more logical route, buses also have the advantage that they can go around obstacles that arise in their lane, and even make detours if needed, while trolleys are stuck until the obstruction is cleared.”

Ironically, there was such a delay on Friday afternoon, when one of the cars hit a pedestrian on Fourth Street.

The advocates remain skeptical, but SEPTA blames the demise of the trolley line at least partly on a lack of operational vehicles. SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch told Railway Age: “Currently, we are operating four of the 18 PCC cars. It is important to note, however, that there has not been an impact to service due to the other trolley cars being pulled from service, because there has been at least a one-for-one bus substitution. This will continue while we work on the fleet over the next 12-18 months.”

SEPTA’s statement continued: “There is not any one factor that has resulted in the other cars being pulled, rather a combination of various factors related to the age of the fleet. Once we have the full fleet of 18 out of service, we can fully evaluate what is needed fleet-wide, and then move forward with the plans to overhaul the fleet.”

Advocates were puzzled by that attitude, since other cities and towns still run PCC cars, while some places run lines with cars that are older than PCCs. Also, SEPTA claimed that the cars needed to be overhauled less than 15 years after Brookville restored them. Bode questioned SEPTA’s motives, because Brookville has a good reputation: “SEPTA says the cars are beyond economic repair, that the carbodies are bad. It has not been that long since Brookville rebuilt them.”

Bode’s reaction was part of a swarm of protests among advocates and former SEPTA managers. Russ Jackson (no relation to Carl), retired SEPTA Manager of Rail Equipment Engineering, was unsure about the agency’s motive in getting rid of the cars and said, “There is too little known as to just what is going on with the Route 15 cars. Yes, they are less reliable and more maintenance-intensive than one would like. But I don’t know that there are problems that make their use impractical or unsafe. One must keep in mind that anything is possible, and one has to ferret out the facts. It is plausible to me that they are letting the cars die just to make their case and get them off the street as soon as possible.  SEPTA promises have a shelf life of about two years.”

Photo courtesy Electric Railroader’s Association.

Blaine Hays, who retired from Cleveland’s RTA after a 32-year technical and journalism career and has remained a streetcar advocate after retirement, said, “The original investment to rehabilitate Route 15 was about $85 million. This included the cars, track, and a great deal of substation, return circuit and feeder cable work. I never heard anything at the time (2005) about running the line for 15 years then shutting it down. The only thing I ever heard about the reintroduction of Route 15 is that it was to be a permanent part of the surface system.”

Jeffrey B. Marinoff lives near Atlantic City, but grew up in Philadelphia and has long-standing ties to the city’s transit. He told Railway Age that, when the Girard Avenue trolleys were discontinued for the first time in 1992, he rode the last car into the Callowhill Depot and pulled the trolley pole down. He had the strongest criticism of SEPTA’s decision to take the cars off the line, as well as for their rationale for doing so.

Jeff Marinoff. Joe Coronetti photo.

In Marinoff’s opinion, “If SEPTA wanted to continue running trolleys on the Rt. 15 (now that Frankford Ave. near the Sugar House will be closed due to I-95 bridge construction) they could temporarily split Rt. 15 with buses at 26th & Girard. After Richmond Street and the Richmond & Westmoreland loop opens this spring, they could then run the trolleys straight through from 63rd & Girard to Richmond & Westmoreland, bypassing Frankford Avenue. But the bottom line is that SEPTA has no intention or interest in continuing Rt. 15 as a trolley line. This is a perfect excuse for them to abandon the line. As a gesture of good will and good faith during the Girard Avenue shutdown, SEPTA should take a couple of the PCCII cars and run them on the University City Loop, which has existing track. It would be extremely popular. Let’s see what SEPTA really thinks about trolleys and how serious they are about restoring trolley service on Route 15. Let’s call their bluff.”

Mark D. Sanders, President of the Philadelphia Street Railway Historical Society, expressed his disappointment: “The whole situation is an outrage. It reflects the failure of both political and institutional will. Replacements will never materialize, the infrastructure will disappear over time, and the route will remain operated with buses forever.”

Photo by Bob Vogel.

SEPTA told Railway Age that the PCC cars will return sometime next year, and Sanders suggested a reason why that might happen: “To the best of my recollection, Brookville charged approximately $1 million apiece to remanufacture the cars for SEPTA. They will, I believe, remain encumbered by the Federal Transit Administration at least for another decade. It is an open question, therefore, whether the FTA would allow [SEPTA] simply to scrap their carbodies, while retaining the trucks.”

That idea is not totally far-fetched. As noted earlier, the St. Louis Post-Disptach reported that the head of Bi-State Metro Transit is promoting a plan to take over the defunct Loop Trolley. At the beginning of this year, we reported that Metro Transit was considering restoring service to stay on the FTA’s good side.

While SEPTA’s scenario seems plausible, none of the advocates with whom Railway Age spoke actually believe that the agency will ever allow the vintage PCC cars to roll on its tracks again. They say that SEPTA has lied to them before, and they do not believe the agency’s promise that the cars will come back.

In 1992, SEPTA had promised that the #15, #23 (a 13-mile line on Eleventh and Twelfth Streets in Center City and along Germantown Avenue), and #56 (on Erie Avenue) routes would come back. The route of the #23 was rebuilt, and a historic Philadelphia Peter Witt car ran on it during the Trolley Fest in 1997. Despite that, regular service never ran on that route or on the #56 since they were originally discontinued. The old tracks and wire on 11th and 12th Streets end abruptly at Girard Avenue now, without crossing it. It took a large amount of pressure from politicians and advocates to bring the #15 line back 13 years later, and none of the advocates who posted messages this time expect it to come back again.

Marinoff recited a litany of broken promises from SEPTA: “They’ve been getting away with it for years. Let’s not forget all of that work done on Germantown Avenue (track, underground duct work, span poles, new trolley wires), Erie Avenue (raised track), Torresdale Avenue (all new span poles), Girard Avenue (track renewal in many areas), The Welcome Line in Center City, Frankford Avenue (from Girard to Delaware Ave.), to name just a few.”

Sandy Smith, a local journalist who has written extensively about transit, said: “SEPTA has plowed lots of money into trolley infrastructure only to remove the trolleys afterward, with only vague promises of their return.” Smith also expressed the hope that the outcome would be different this time, but May cautioned: “I can’t believe that anyone is holding his or her breath waiting for SEPTA trolley routes 23 and 56 to come back, or for that matter, the Arborway and Watertown lines in Boston. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Sanders was equally skeptical of SEPTA’s announced plans. He told Railway Age, “At the present time, I believe, it is naive to expect that SEPTA will ever rebuild the PCC II cars. It is far more likely that sooner or later it will claim to have discovered defects so serious as to render further investment in them uneconomic. Then it will proceed to sell them as quickly as possible to other operators. I have witnessed this rodeo many times. It invariably consists of three separate acts: Deny, Delay, and Destroy. First SEPTA denies that it hates the streetcars as it removes them from service. Then it endlessly delays their reintroduction. Then it destroys the infrastructure required to sustain operations.”

According to Sanders, SEPTA intentionally dismantled a strong streetcar system in the northern part of the city. He told Railway Age: “The cessation of streetcar operations on Route 15 marks the final nail in the coffin of the North Philadelphia Surface Streetcar System, which, when SEPTA acquired it, consisted of seven routes (6, 15, 23, 47, 50, 53, and 60). In virtually every instance, conversion to bus operation has occurred on the heels of significant renewal of infrastructure.” Regarding the Girard Avenue line specifically, he added, “Nearly two decades ago, SEPTA initiated the Girard Avenue Light Rail Infrastructure Renewal Project only under duress. So reluctant was SEPTA to pursue the project that staff openly bragged of diverting half of the Federal grants for it to other capital projects. No wonder that it was advanced on a shoestring.”

Even if SEPTA sells or scraps the PCC II cars that recently ran on Girard Avenue, it is also possible that different cars might run on that route some time in the future. Both Jacksons speculated that SEPTA could run the 9000-series cars made by Kawasaki, which are currently running elsewhere in the system, on the subway-surface lines. Time will tell but, given SEPTA’s anti-streetcar history, that seems unlikely. Marinoff summed up that opinion by saying, “While the whole world builds streetcar, tram and light rail lines, Philadelphia is busy paving over trolley tracks and cutting down trolley wires.”

SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards.

There is a new General Manager at SEPTA, Leslie S. Richards, who was appointed last November and began at SEPTA at the start of this year. She had previously been Transportation Secretary (at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, PennDOT), and had previously lived in Philadelphia and in Montgomery County; a suburban area within SEPTA’s service region.

PennDOT does not have a strong reputation for bringing passenger trains to the Keystone State or for improving rail transit there; its one notable accomplishment seems to be the relatively recent upgrades to Amtrak’s Keystone Line (historically the PRR main) between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. There is still only one daily Amtrak train between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh; plans for service in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area and on the Lackawanna Cutoff Line to Scranton have been deferred for decades, and the major transit systems serving the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas seem to survive by the skin of their teeth between financial crises and threats of massive service cuts.

When Richards was appointed, Darryl C. Murphy reported on WHYY: “Richards takes SEPTA’s helm as Act 89, a state funding mechanism for public transportation throughout the state that helped fund the authority’s capital projects, approaches its end. The program sends hundreds of millions of dollars in PennDOT funds to SEPTA annually, money now at risk.”

Joel Spivak, a transit historian and co-author of Images of Rail: Philadelphia Railroads (with Allen Meyers, Arcade Publishing, 2010), blames the structure of the SEPTA Board for anti-rail policies that affect the City of Philadelphia itself. He told Railway Age that officials from each jurisdiction get to appoint two members, which means two from the City of Philadelphia and two from each of the suburban counties SEPTA serves. So the suburban counties get their trains and maybe some system expansion, while the city lacks the political clout that it would need to get better transit.

It seems that politics dominates transit everywhere, and Andy Byford’s recent and sudden resignation as head of New York City Transit may be a case in point. Rumors about friction between Byford and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had been circulating around New York City and Albany for at least a year.

Could the sudden removal of streetcars from Girard Avenue be merely another political decision concerning transit? Bode thinks so. He commented: “Thinking about this, the change comes just after the GM changed, so she can blame it on her predecessor. It is just after many new Democratic county commissioners took office, so if they put new members on the Board it will already be a done deal.”

As he has done many times before, Marinoff expressed his frustration: “Somebody needs to talk to Mayor [Jim] Kenney. Now that the Democrats are controlling the SEPTA Board, I thought things would improve at SEPTA. But SEPTA management is as anti-trolley as ever.”

It is difficult to hazard a guess about the future, because no one with whom Railway Age spoke, except SEPTA employees, believes that the agency is credible. None of the advocates believe that the PCC cars will ever come back, and even the agency itself made inconsistent statements about when the last day of trolley service would actually occur. The statement concerning the last run that SEPTA gave Railway Age on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 23 said, “It is expected to be early morning on Sunday, Jan. 26. Since the line is already a mix of trolleys and buses, there is not a schedule specific to trolleys, so we don’t have a specific time for the last trip.”

As it turned out, the above-expressed expectation was incorrect. We reviewed SEPTA’s Bulletin Order No. 20-03, which was issued on Monday, Jan. 20. The pertinent part was §(D) 3.a.(1)(a), which stated: “Route 15 will operate as bus until further notice, beginning Saturday, Oct. 25th.” While the agent on SEPTA’s customer service line told Railway Age on Jan. 25 that the cars were still running, advocates reported that the cars were gone—shipped from the Callowhill Depot to the Elmwood Depot for long-term storage and “evaluation.” So the written bulletin that governed the operation and the advocates’ reports do not match SEPTA’s statement.

The PCC streetcars with their green and cream liveries that had part of the Philadelphia scene for most of a century have rolled on the city’s streets for the last time—or so at least many advocates and former managers fear. They will not be forgotten. At the moment, at least, one of those cars graces the lobby of SEPTA’s headquarters building at 1234 Market Street as an exhibit in the agency’s transit museum. It is #2733, looking the way it did before Brookville rebuilt other members of its class into PCC II cars with a different interior, on static display and probably never to run again.

The historic Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) livery lives on in a single operating car that plies the streets, but not in Philadelphia. It once ran in the City of Brotherly Love (where there is no such love lost between SEPTA and streetcar advocates), but today (above) it bears number 1055 (originally Car #2122 in Philadelphia) as part of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI), and it runs on Market Street and the Embarcadero. It runs by the Bay, not the Delaware River, but it remains a PCC streetcar painted to commemorate its siblings that once ran alongside it in Philadelphia.

MUNI Market Street Railway.

The Market Street Railway promotes San Francisco’s historic streetcars, many of which are PCC cars that previously ran on SEPTA. That organization’s January 2020 newsletter paid tribute to the Philadelphia PCCs and ran coverage as detailed as that in Philadelphia’s local media, including this paragraph: “Our Market Street took its name from the one in Philadelphia. A century and a half later, community and political leaders in the City of Philadelphia were intrigued by the success of our F-line, where riders and onlookers loved the sleek PCC streetcars (the first batch of which MUNI actually bought second-hand from Philadelphia). A movement started there to bring back PCCs to the 15-Girard line, which had been ‘temporarily’ ‘bus-tituted’ in 1992. The regional transit agency, SEPTA, did not want to do this, given its emphasis on suburban commuters, but then-Mayor Ed Rendell and others essentially strong-armed SEPTA into it.”

After mentioning that the PCCs had come back to Girard Avenue in 2005 and that the line was established in 1859, the article continued: “Soon enough, though, it became clear that SEPTA management wasn’t fully supportive of the PCC service. Only two of the 15 SEPTA board members are appointed by elected officials in the City of Philadelphia; the suburban board majority has repeatedly emphasized suburban rail services rather than inner-city ones. Rendell left office, some supporters took the continuation of the PCC service for granted, and on Jan. 25, buses will replace streetcars on the 15-line again. SEPTA officials have said that rail service will eventually return, but point to a time at least four years down the road when the agency procures new LRVs to replace its current Kawasaki fleet.”

Two other SEPTA streetcar lines have been “temporarily” operated by buses for 27 years now.

Could political change be coming to SEPTA? In an article profiling Richards in the Jan. 26 edition of the Inquirer, Patricia Madej observed: “A blue wave that descended onto Philadelphia’s suburbs after November’s general election could bring a historic Democratic shift on SEPTA’s Board in the years ahead. For now, there’s only speculation on what that could mean for customers, considering Philadelphia has more public transit riders than the surrounding four counties represented on the board combined.”

As with any issue concerning politics and transit, time will tell. Maits credits a new urbanist-oriented PAC called 5th Square (www.5thsq.org) with making a difference in recent Philadelphia City Council elections that could possibly bode well for improved transit some day.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. Photo courtesy the Philadelphia Inquirer/Anthony Pezzotti.

 For now, though, it appears that politics and the apparent anti-streetcar attitude at SEPTA have won the battle. It also seems likely that, if past practice is any indication, they will also win the war. Even if tempered with reality, hope seems to spring eternal, at least among some of the advocates. Marinoff believes that any hope for getting the line back resides with getting Mayor Jim Kenney to intervene, while several advocates had suggestions for future trolley services.

Still, Marinoff expressed an attitude that he considers realistic: “Don’t let the anti-trolley people at SEPTA fool you., not for one minute. They’ve been praying for the day and for the excuse to kill the trolley line on Girard Ave. It started by them deliberately ordering too few cars for the line in the first place, when they were politically forced to return the route to rail. Talk that they’ll now rebuild the PCC II cars over a one- to two-year absence is pure fiction. Mark my words, nothing will happen with the cars. Months will become years and then they’ll say the cars are too old to run or invest money in. Anybody care to make a bet?”

It seems highly unlikely that Marinoff will get any takers.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).

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