Government Issues

2017 Consultant Roundtable: Industry Focused on Full Transportation Network Thinking, Finding Funding Solutions

Posted on June 12, 2017 by Alex Roman - Also by this author

Today, projects are being planned with an eye on how they will fit into the larger multimodal transportation picture, rather than simply moving people along its route. A key to completing many of these projects includes innovation and solving the funding issue, which many states and localities are doing through transportation ballot initiatives.

With the threat to dedicated federal funds looming, many projects around the nation are facing uncertainty, which could not only impact transit agencies and their local communities, but the consultant industry as well.

METRO spoke with consultants who not only discussed the nation’s growing infrastructure needs and those funding issues, but also the growing popularity of other transportation options and how they may work together with public transit. Additionally, they discussed how funding and streamlined processes can help a project become a reality in a quicker timeframe than in the past and the need for workforce development.

Diana Mendes

Sr. VP/, National Transit/Rail Market Sector Leader

HNTB

How is your firm developing its workforce to prepare them for future opportunities?

What has really changed is the workforce is much more mobile than it’s ever been. So as an employer, we have had to adjust how we approach training to enable people to be trained more quickly and on a more routine basis. It used to be training programs would offer a couple courses a couple times a year, but now with the mobility in the workforce, it is important to have continuous training that is more easily accessible to people and uses a broad range of training techniques. It is no longer just in-person, but is taking advantage of a full suite of online and remote training capabilities and doing facilitated conversations and lunch-and-learns, internally.

For example, we have a transit and rail academy at HNTB, where we offer webinars and different experts talk about their areas of expertise, which not only provides technical knowledge to people working in the field, but also allows for people to explore and learn about different areas that might be of interest to them over the course of their career. It is a combination of exposure and increasing technical capacity, because millennials are focused on their experiences and career paths and have different expectations regarding what they want from an employer. So, everybody is benefitting from their expectations as we revamp our approach to training to be more inclusive, accessible, and immediate.

How beneficial is it to to be active in transportation associations?

Professional associations provide an invaluable resource for people of all levels in their careers. For some, it’s the opportunity to gain leadership experience that they can then take back and apply to their jobs. For others, it’s a way to get exposure to best practices and lessons learned. It is also the opportunity for people to network and build their cabinet, so to speak, so that when they experience similar challenges or issues, they might be able to consult with some of the colleagues they have met along the way.

I think a lot of associations have really raised the bar, in terms of the leadership training they are offering. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) used to have the APTA Leadership program, but now they are adding an Emerging Leaders program as well, which enables people at different points of their career to take advantage of learning the skills they need to take their capabilities to the next level. Recently, I taught a manager’s institute for the American Planning Association, which is aimed at helping to facilitate the transition from technician to first time manager. WTS also has a whole series of leadership training opportunities tailored to the young professional, as well as more senior executives, and Eno Foundation also offers a series of great programs, both short and long, where people get exposure to top transit industry leadership. It’s really all an investment that is well spent.

What is the current climate for public transportation projects looking to move forward?

A very exciting thing happened with the transit ballot initiatives in 2016. It was historic in that there were about 49 transit-related funding initiatives on ballots, coast-to-coast, and approximately 70 percent of those passed with $170 billion in funding for systems. I think that’s an exciting part of the story. While a lot of transit systems got their start through federal funding and the major Capital Investment Grants program and New Starts and Small Starts funding, it’s exciting to see it take off at the local level and have state and local ballots pass, indicating that people see a value in transit. I think that sends a message to the federal government about the importance of investment in transit. And, it goes beyond simple mobility and accessibility, but also includes a broad range of perceived benefits in these jurisdictions with respect to quality of life, accessibility to jobs, economic development, and enabling different lifestyle choices. While funding is always a difficult question, I see greater support for public transportation than ever when you look at the total big picture.

Is there a solution consultants can share with transit agencies to help bridge the funding gap?

Partnerships are critical and that’s not only public-private partnerships, but partnerships across agencies through looking for efficiencies and making decisions that move the needle on the total transportation system, not just individual projects or modes. Taking that regional perspective and looking at the performance of the transportation system across a broad range of metrics, regionally, can really help agencies prioritize projects and get the biggest return on investment. When we pick good projects in the context of an overall network, and develop and successfully implement them, we build trust and confidence with the public, customers, and investors; so success really follows the success. The things that hold projects up — controversy, disagreement on the scope of the project — can be overcome by partnering to manage expectations and iron our agreements early. When communities get delivery of transit projects on time and on budget, they are more willing to make additional investments in the transit system.

Several reports show younger people are driving less…what are some ways to get that generation on public transportation and/or keep them riding?

I think it is all about quality of service and convenience, as well as attention to what customer expectations are, and then making sure your product, i.e. the services you deliver, meet those expectations. The whole autonomous vehicle and ridesharing evolution that’s happening really can be a boon for public transportation systems, because it expands their reach in an affordable way and makes them more accessible to a broader range of people. It is about product design — you see the quality of vehicles and the level of amenities improving. Real-time information in concert with predictability and reliability are always going to be core to success. Agencies are more vigilant than ever about safety, and offering safe, efficient, and reliable options makes for a more satisfied customer, which will keep them coming back for more service.

Don Sepulveda

VP/Rail and Transit Practice Lead, West Region

Michael Baker International

How are rail projects evolving on the west coast, particularly in L.A. and Seattle? Why do you think these projects are finding success?

I think the tax initiatives have been done smartly. They have been well defined and provided benefits to all the communities. Speaking of LA Metro as a prime example, what they have done is reached out to all the sub-communities and sub-regions in L.A. County and got feedback from them regarding the types of projects they would like to have. In addition to transit projects, there are other transportation projects that actually provide benefits to the local communities that they are looking at, and that is the key in providing benefits to the local communities to getting these things passed, which is one of the challenges that some of the other large projects have had in California. When you compare the large projects to these tax initiatives, you can see a considerable difference between the two.

What can be done to spin the growing negativity toward high-speed rail in California?

I think that what is getting lost in the shuffle with high-speed rail is the benefits it can provide to local communities. The old days of building the railroad are long gone. Back in the transcontinental railroad days, they came in and said ‘we’re from the railroad, and we’re here to help.’ That is gone. You have to come in now and work with the communities, and this is why transit agencies have been so successful, because they have been working with communities in developing these transit projects. High-speed rail has started, in recent years, to work with the communities, but previously, they really weren’t as strong with community outreach as they could have been. They have now recognized that, so what they have done is gone a long way to try to fix that problem. But, there is a lot of impact with high-speed rail because of the nature of design, so you are going to have a lot of pushback because of those impacts.

What needs to happen is some sort of outreach that discusses the benefits of high-speed rail to the local communities, and they are doing that more and more, but there are still some communities that feel they are getting all of the impacts without any of the benefits. So it is a bit of a different challenge for them compared to other transit agencies.

Do you feel the project can still be successful, perhaps with some more private investments coming in?

I do. In working with my previous position at an agency, where I represented them in dealing with high-speed rail, one of the things I was seeing was a lot of interest by private industry in the investment of high-speed rail. You may not hear about it in the news or publicly, but privately there is a lot of interest in high-speed rail and in moving forward with public-private partnerships. High-speed rail has been profitable in other parts of the world, there is no reason why it couldn’t be profitable in Southern California, they just have to do it correctly.

What do you think the public transportation industry has done right in terms of capitalizing on its growing popularity? What’s the next step?

I am going to go back to my earlier statement about involving the communities. If a transit agency builds a project in a vacuum and doesn’t provide value for the community, then the transit project won’t be used or will meet considerable friction. So what transit agencies need to do is provide value to the community so that the community sees the benefits of the transit system. For example, the transit systems in L.A. have been defined specifically with that in mind. Throughout the environmental documents, they involve the community so that they bring the value of the transit system to the community and get feedback from that community as to whether it is worthwhile or not. There have been projects that have been put on hold because the community has come out against them. But at the same time, it’s a matter of getting ahead of it. Dealing with the community, you have to get ahead of the message and formulate the message, versus the naysayers formulating the message.

You have both public and private sector knowledge, how does that benefit you in your position now, as well as your clients?

One of the things I am bringing back to the consultant agency is the mindset of the public sector. The public sector has to think of things differently. It has to think of the community, otherwise the project will go south. They have to think about their budget, project delivery methods, and the promises they make to the community. It’s up to the consulting firms to ensure that the public agency meets those demands. What I bring to Michael Baker is the knowledge of how it can be done. When I was at LA Metro for five-and-a-half years, I started what became a $2.5 billion rail program where there was nothing before, and I did it with the assistance of consultants and the community.

Consultants shouldn’t be seen as looking after the paying jobs that are coming about, they should look to see how they can benefit the public agency in working with them to ensure they are delivering the projects they promised in the manner they promised them. Also when we look at these things, there are changing attitudes toward small and minority businesses, so it is up to us as consultant primes to include small businesses in our work to ensure that not only these businesses grow, but that the agency’s goals are met in these areas. We are seeing more and more of this push toward small business inclusion, and it’s something we have to continue to be aware of.

Will usage of design-build grow?

Absolutely. Design-build does one of two things: it saves money or it saves time. In the case of a lot of these transit agencies, they have made promises to their communities to develop these projects in a specific amount of time, so they are going to rely on design-build. But, they are also going to rely on some public-private partnerships to advance these projects ahead of schedule. What I think you are going to see is more usage of design-build, as well a wide variety of these types of project delivery methods used as we move forward.

Gregory A. Kelly

President/CEO

WSP USA and Latin America

Besides funding, what key challenges are facing transit properties?

In November 2016, communities across America approved ballot initiatives to dramatically increase funding for transit and other transportation improvements, with Los Angeles’s approval of the $120 billion Measure M being the most notable example. Having voted for increased funding, people understandably want to see transit improvements made in significantly shorter timeframes. Transportation agencies and consulting engineering firms must respond to these expectations.

At the same time, transit agencies are challenged with being more efficient in service delivery and operations. As a result, agencies increasingly are re-evaluating route structures — seeking operating efficiencies and cost savings that can be reinvested to grow ridership with new or expanded service across the transit network.

Transit agencies must also identify the most appropriate and cost-effective technology investments to enhance the customer experience, operations, project delivery, and decision-making. Technologies being considered range from new fare payment systems, ticketing such as mobile apps, asset management systems, positive train control, and the integration of traditional transit services with the newer offerings of transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft.

Resource allocation is another challenge. Transit agencies, particularly the larger, older organizations, must determine how to deploy people and resources to balance the needs of maintaining and modernizing the infrastructure, while at the same time meeting the service and reliability demands of the riding public.

Finally, demographic trends indicate a growing scarcity of people with the requisite technical skills to operate and manage our transit systems.

Can you discuss current trends in Latin America and how they compare to those here in the U.S.?

Latin America has passed through a difficult 2016 in terms of political, economic, social, and environmental challenges. For 2017, a mild recovery is expected although a series of environmental impacts caused by climate change will impact countries, such as Peru, Colombia, and Chile. The region will, however, see improvement compared to the past year in terms of growth.

Specific events, such as Colombia´s peace process and the election of a new president in Peru, will boost the Latin American economy as these two countries are expected to lead growth in the region. Chile´s dependence on minerals has impacted the growth of GDP, and in the first quarter the country experienced a mine strike that resulted in a slow start for 2017, followed by a weak recovery. Significant government infrastructure spending in Colombia will generate a boost for the economy, and in Peru, large infrastructure investment in water, roads, and re-construction will support growth.

Among similarities to the U.S. is interest in developing public-private partnerships as fast-track solutions for complex developments.

What new trends are helping projects reach completion sooner or at least in the client’s desired time frame here in the U.S.?

We’re seeing growing interest in design-build and other forms of alternative delivery, including public-private partnerships. These hold great potential for delivering large, complex projects, such as the new Central Terminal building at LaGuardia Airport, which is being delivered via P3, or the ongoing expansion of Seattle’s light rail system, where Sound Transit is pursuing design-build contracts. Another promising trend is unsolicited proposals, which hold the promise of leveraging innovation and risk sharing from the private sector.

Discuss some new initiatives your firm has taken on in the last year?

We recently rebranded as WSP, following the acquisition of Parsons Brinckerhoff by WSP two-and-a-half years ago. Operating as WSP USA, our aim is to expand our capabilities in energy, water, and environmental consulting to complement the widely recognized transportation engineering expertise of the former Parsons Brinckerhoff, as well as the renowned building engineering capabilities of WSP. We believe this strategy will position us to seize the community-building opportunities made possible by increases in funding for public transportation.

What is your outlook for the future of public transportation?

We are bullish on the future of public transportation. As many regions of the U.S. become increasingly urbanized, and populations surge in established urban areas, the demand for more and better public transit increases. Moreover, there is increasing recognition that transit investments not only improve mobility but also foster economic development. Perhaps the most notable example in the U.S. is the extension of New York City’s No. 7 subway line to Hudson Yards, a massive commercial, retail, and residential development on Manhattan’s West Side that simply would not have been feasible without transit investment. Another prominent example is San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Terminal, which has spurred the creation of a new transit-oriented neighborhood, including skyline-defining high-rise buildings, such as Salesforce Tower, 181 Fremont, and 350 Mission.

We see bus rapid transit (BRT) as an especially promising transit mode for the future. BRT continues to grow steadily in all areas of the country because of features including better mobility and stimulation of economic development in downtowns, such as Spokane, Wash., Providence, R.I., and Cleveland; feeder services to existing and new rail networks, as in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Seattle; and as ‘spines’ of rapid transit in smaller cities like Eugene, Ore. and Fresno, Calif. A recent BRT success story was the start-up of The Vine in Vancouver, Wash., which improves capacity and travel times at less cost than the previous traditional bus service and is expected to spur economic development in the area.

Huelon Harrison

Principal

Legacy Resource Group

There seems to be a growing acceptance of DBEs, WBEs, MBEs, and SBEs by both primes and public transit agencies, discuss some of the reasons for that growth.

We’re finding that many primes and transit agencies are recognizing there are talented firms that are DBEs, WBEs, MBEs or SBEs. With that in mind, I have noticed significant participation goals set forth by many agencies. The agencies want to create opportunities to build capacity for these firms, and by having strong goals or significant participation, the primes do their best to satisfy proposal requirements.

In many circumstances, the board of directors want to see local firms being utilized, thus facilitating the firm’s ability to building capacity and company growth, which allows them to make a difference in the marketplace. For instance, a prime may have an opportunity to propose on a project. Rather than include subcontractors from outside the area that they have a history with, the primes sometimes will match local firms with these outside firms to create an opportunity for them to participate on the project. This process has proven to be beneficial to the prime, the sub, and the client.

To address your question, more certified firms are being used then in the past. This positive change may be due to the fact that senior level transit executives and transit board members are making a conscientious effort to see a level playing field. This effort leads to a change in the way RFQs and RFPs are being developed.

In many areas, the usage of these types of businesses is actually exceeding what is stipulated, is there a reason why?

Yes. As an example you may have a firm that has worked with a prime contractor on a DART project. After proving themselves with that prime, there may be other opportunities on other projects with additional scope, enabling the firm to grow or build capacity. For instance, I have worked with firms who started off with a relatively small scope, and after proving themselves and successfully performing on the project, they have seen their opportunities multiply.

This growth is a very good story for small firms to tell, whether it’s being involved in the RFQ and/or RFP processes or bringing innovations to projects. These firms are not just finding success here in Dallas, but they are seeing opportunities with primes all over the country. In many instances smaller firms from outside the service area will partner with local firms to help build their capacity and grow their business as well, so it’s a win-win.

So success breeds success?

Yes. Imagine being at your first career opportunity — your success most likely will involve a mentor or some senior level person who has some interest in you. As it relates to business, when your firm’s talent is observed and given the opportunity to perform, growth is imminent.

Today, many primes make a conscious effort to approach small firms they aren’t familiar with and advise them of opportunities to perform on a project, with the prime firm providing guidance or assistance as necessary to ensure success. So once their project is delivered successfully as a team, in more instances than not, the prime will invite the smaller firm to participate in other opportunities.

As funding issues loom, how will the public transportation industry be impacted?

Any time you have uncertainty in the market, as far as having long-term funding for projects, agencies are impacted first because they can’t completely develop a project or take it from development to design to construction. A project can typically take 24 to 36 months to be completed, therefore, without committed funding, those projects would never become a reality. Many agencies are preparing for the future by getting stakeholder support, political support, and their communities energized, just waiting for the green light so they can be ready to move forward. Presently, there is an abundance of shovel ready projects in the market that are just waiting for funding to be available.

As Uber, autonomous vehicles and the like continue to grow and take hold, what do you think will be public transportation’s role in the future?

A lot of these first mile/last mile programs center around a strong public transportation system. Partnerships with  transit authorities most definitely insure success. Much of the success of Uber, Lyft, and other programs have been because of their relationships with the local transit agency.

Autonomous vehicles are going to be part of the future. As an industry, we need to be supportive, inviting, and committed to seeing that type of vehicle being part of our industry. As we see these trends developing, we must be part of its success, because ultimately, it benefits our industry. At industry trade shows, such as the upcoming APTA EXPO, you’ll see more and more innovation, technologies, and futuristic thinking than you have in the past, and that is the way the industry is going.

What trends are you seeing in the industry right now?

Historically, bus service was the backbone of public transportation industry. The success of light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, and so forth all hinges on a strong bus system. Competition for funding for the development of many capital projects is also very strong. In the past, you had cities that weren’t really supportive of light rail and other innovative programs, that are now supportive and want more transit as quickly as possible because of the benefits provided by a good transportation system.  

Richard Amodei

Sr. VP/Northeast Regional Manager, Transportation & Infrastructure Division

STV Inc.

What impact will the FAST Act have on the public transportation industry, as well as the consultant industry?

The FAST Act was clearly a step in the right direction. The new legislation included much-needed investment in some key areas such as $207 billion for highways and $48.7 billion in total transit funding — rail grant programs designed for safety improvements and State of Good Repair programs, Amtrak, highway-rail grade crossing safety, and PTC. The construction industry generally favors some of the FAST Act initiatives, such as streamlining processes, permitting issues, and accelerated construction. The legislation places more emphasis on alternative delivery (design-build, P3), tolling safety, and performance measures. These are all steps in the right direction to put funding and building of transportation projects at the forefront.

Over five years, FAST will also distribute $4.5 billion through a new freight-specific competitive grant program for ‘nationally significant’ projects and $6.3 billion through a freight formula program. The measure also includes $5 billion for highway safety programs.

In New York, the Cross Harbor rail-freight tunnel in New York Harbor received a boost with passage of the FAST given the freight specific grant program. STV, in a joint venture, is leading this project having recently completed a Tier 1 EIS.

We’re likely to continue seeing additional planning and engineering efforts along the Northeast Corridor and other high-performance rail corridors including the Southeast Corridor, and even in Southern California, to accommodate additional demand for rail passenger services.

The FAST Act, at least, provides some level of federal certainty until 2020. As no new revenue sources have been identified, when FAST expires, we will once again be confronting transportation infrastructure funding shortfalls.

When agencies are developing projects, how important has the customer’s feedback become?

Public agencies always have their customers in mind when it comes to developing their capital program, multi-year needs assessments, and long-range plans. The customer’s feedback plays a significant role in customer-facing projects, such as new alignments or levels of service for both rail and bus service, new vehicles, and stations. Transit agencies routinely gather comments from the public at regular board meetings where individuals can comment and through special community committees that meet and report regularly with the agency. Extensions of passenger rail lines and new rail lines require a thorough planning and environmental review process that requires open public meetings, workshops, and eventually public hearings that obtain comments that must be addressed through to move the project forward to design and construction.

The MTA here in New York recently held a series of focus groups to solicit input on what the next subway car could look like; for example, the open gangway style car used in the London Underground. In the case of stations, another example in New York is the New York City Transit’s Enhanced Station Initiative. The Governor had a big influence on this program seeking to do an entire gut rehab on the subway stations, particularly those in the outer boroughs. And a lot of those incorporated project features — the Help Point wayfinding stations, the free Wi-Fi charging stations, the countdown clocks informing you when the next train will arrive — are a result of commuter feedback.

Discuss one or two projects STV is working on.

STV was recently awarded the extension of the Confederation Line in Ottawa, Canada. The City of Ottawa has retained an STV-led joint venture firm to provide preliminary engineering and program management for the second stage of its transformative light rail transit (LRT) expansion program. We started work with the Ottawa City Council back in 2010 on Stage 1 of its LRT expansion, and it’s scheduled to open in Spring 2018. This is an exciting project because completing Stage 2 will bring 70 percent of all city residents within approximately three miles of rail transportation. This will help contribute to shorter commutes, cleaner air, and a stronger economy for the Ottawa region. We are pleased to continue our partnership with the City and assist in delivering their program goals. It’s an example of why client service and relationships are key to business practices — it translates to success not only for our company and our employees, but for the client and their customers.  

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