January 2009

Technology's impact has multiple dimensions and challenges

by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

Anyone who has observed this industry even half as long as I must be struck by the radical changes that have taken place in public transportation. Thanks to advances both inside and outside this industry, people with a simple Blackberry or other handheld device now can look up when their bus or train will arrive at their station or stop. Those who work on this equipment can also run a diagnostic program and check the status of systems on these buses or trains. The result is a much more reliable fleet and savings of thousands of staff hours annually.

Series of challenges
But, technology presents a series of challenges as well. Perhaps the most important of these is agency staff keeping up with the training necessary to understand how to get the most out of these innovations, and what to do if something goes wrong. Of course, this training can often be provided by the equipment supplier as part of the procurement contracts, but the time to take the training is a cost that must be borne by the agencies, which is considered to be an operating expense. Funds to cover these expenses compete with other operating needs such as rising fuel prices and healthcare costs.

Technology has challenges to the private sector side of the industry as well. Expertise to provide the above-mentioned training or even to design and manufacture sophisticated technology is becoming harder to hire, as there is a growing shortage of engineers and other technical talent. Much of this talent is competed for by other industries with deeper pockets.

Meet growing demand
As we look to expand the industry and procure new equipment to meet the growing demand for public transportation, governments and agencies must fund the talent side of our growing need. Both the stimulus bills and authorization legislation that Congress is considering this year must fund the staff recruitment, retention and training needed by our industry to keep up with the technology.

This must begin with funding training as a legitimate capital expense, eligible for federal funding. Ideally, provisions of this legislation should include funding for training and workforce development, not just allowing existing funds to be spent on these needs.

The promise of technology allows public transportation to do things unimaginable even a few years ago. But that’s just the point: because they were not imagined, our programs have not kept pace with such rapid change. It’s time to correct this, because the challenges will only get greater.


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