Management & Operations

Trial By Fire: Jenna Dorn's Turbulent First Year at the FTA

Posted on July 1, 2002 by Steve Hirano, editor

Jenna Dorn doesn’t want to do the interview in the conference room chosen by one of her aides. Assuming her guests would be more content elsewhere, she leads them into the executive sitting area of her office, makes sure they’re settled and then launches unbidden into an eight-minute reflection on the state of the transit industry in post-9/11 America. Dorn, who was confirmed as the top executive of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) on July 12, 2001, is as friendly and convivial as the halls of the FTA’s ninth-floor offices in the U.S. Department of Transportation building in Washington, D.C., are severe and impersonal. This is, after all, the federal government at work. Public service suits her. Although she exudes the type of energy, intelligence and leadership that would serve her well in corporate America, Dorn has built an impressive public service career in Washington, D.C. (See biography on pg. 110). She describes herself as a “public service junkie.” Her opening soliloquy, by the way, is pure Jenna, an animated stream of consciousness that sounds like one long paragraph held together with dozens of ellipses. When she comes up for air, METRO Editor Steve Hirano realizes it’s time to start asking questions.

Now that you’ve been in office for more than a year, what has been your greatest challenge?

Dorn: First of all, everything changed after September 11. So that has been a tremendous challenge for all of us involved in public transportation. I know a lot more now, and some of it is more sobering since that day. We’ve gotten involved in things that none of us would ever expect we’d have to become involved in. But I think the industry has really performed very well, and we’ve had a very good partnership with the industry on security issues. The challenge this year, particularly, has been quickly learning how the FTA programs have been created over a couple of very successful authorizations and then having to be ready with creative ideas about how to build on that success. It has given me, and our team, the opportunity to do a lot of outreach with all of the stakeholders. And to get their sense about what works and what doesn’t work in our grant program and in our delivery of services, technical assistance and in our oversight. That’s been a very exciting and big challenge.

How has the industry responded to the FTA’s security initiatives?

Dorn: We’ve completed threat and vulnerability assessments of the top 30 metro systems and subway systems. There was some initial hesitation about that effort, but it has moved forward nearly flawlessly, I think, in terms of the cooperative spirit and the value that has been perceived from both sides. And by both sides I mean the local transit agency that hasn’t had the benefit of several pairs of outside eyes to look at threats and vulnerability, prioritization of resources and emergency response preparedness. Many of the transit agencies, of course, had done fairly significant work in security, but nothing to compare to the needs that arose from September 11. Also, we at the FTA learned a lot that we were able to transmit to other transit agencies, in terms of best practices. So I think it’s the classic type of a win-win situation. Unfortunately, it emanated from very tragic circumstances, but I was very proud of the industry, and I’m very proud of the FTA for being aggressive about that.

Did you discover any commonalities during your security assessments of the major transit agencies?

Dorn: At many agencies, the emergency response planning capability was not what agencies wanted or what we wanted. In addition, the emergency response drills were not occurring often enough. So, we very quickly used a couple of million dollars to provide $50,000 grants for emergency drills. We approved those right as they came in, and I think we had a total of 80. Awards were made in a matter of weeks, in some cases, for the total amount. That was an important contribution that the FTA could make as a result of the generosity of the White House and Congress. And we wouldn’t have known that could be so fundamental. Sometimes you think, ‘Oh, you have to get the highest tech cameras in every place and that’s your solution.’ Very often, it’s training at the front line — supervisors and emergency response planning. It’s a lot of people-oriented type things.

Speaking of people orientation: At the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) legislative meeting earlier this year, Mary Peters, your counterpart at the Federal Highway Administration, told a poignant story about how her retired father had lost his sense of independence — and eventually his will to live — after bus service was no longer available to him. How do you keep the FTA connected to the person on the street who needs to ride the bus?

Dorn: That was a very compelling story, and anytime you have a personal story it leaves a mark in your policy-making because you feel passionate about it, and clearly she does. I think that we have a real advantage in that, first of all, our FTA regional staff is with the customer every day. And they are a very key part of our management team. And, in almost all of the headquarter’s activities, we have the opportunity in real-time to talk with the grantees. To see the passion of these individuals who come in with the mayor and city councilperson and the community or the county commissioners come in with the transit head and say, “Now we’ve done these things to really build local consensus, and we think this public transportation project works.” Then they give examples about what has happened as a result of other programs. So it’s hard not to be connected to the people side. I think that’s one of the great things about public transportation. And I think it makes absolute sense, particularly for public transportation, that we have to be results-focused, citizen-centered and customer-oriented, all of those things. If we do that well, we’re going to do what the taxpayer expects us to do.

One of the things you have mentioned is how the FTA had developed a risk-averse culture. Have you been able to break down that attitude? Dorn: Yes, I think we’ve made a lot of progress as a team in that regard. And the tone has to be set by the FTA’s leadership, and that isn’t just me and it isn’t just our executive management team. It also has to emanate throughout the organization with a fundamental principle. We have to listen to what our colleagues and our fellow team members think. And we have to be genuinely interested in their point of view. We have to create an environment where it’s safe to give your opinion. I’m not an engineer. I feel like I know a lot about government and process and building consensus, but on the other hand, I need to have confidence that the engineers and planners who work for me are going to feel the freedom to say not what they think I want to hear, but what their professional opinion is about a certain subject. So, the burden is on me to create an environment where their opinion is valued. And I think that we’ve been able to do that together. That’s very important. It’s awfully hard, I think, to be in the year 2002, to be a public servant and maybe even a career public servant because the environment can tend to be a “gotcha environment.” Among GAO [Government Accounting Office], oversight agencies, Congress and the press, it’s no wonder there can tend to be a risk-averse approach.

In addition to risk aversion, you’ve also mentioned how the FTA has erected “programmatic silos.” Have you been able to take down some of those silos?

Dorn: Especially now, with complex public transportation projects and the complex processes that are required, if we or the grantees approach this in a silo’d way, we’d never produce the results we need. I think very often we learn from our customers — the transit agencies who have successfully worked beyond silo. For example, I recently visited a huge public transportation project, the expansion of the Hudson-Bergen light rail line at New Jersey Transit. To produce such a successful project, they built community consensus, incorporated transit-oriented development, used an innovative approach in terms of design, build, operate and maintain and developed public/private sector cooperation and creative financing. If they had looked at in a silo’d way, they never would have produced such a successful project. Another example is Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Such a totally different end of the demographic spectrum and what they have done, as a transit agency, to inspire thinking big about the role that public transportation can have in improving the lives and the livelihood of people in their community is really phenomenal because they have inspired growth in other businesses that are related to transportation. They have improved dramatically their service in paratransit by working with the business community and human service groups. They just developed some very innovative approaches because they thought outside the box and it worked outside the box.

Did the FTA have a role in facilitating these projects?

Dorn: I know, in both cases, there was a very strong partnership with our regional folks. Mokhtee Ahmad in our Region 7 office has been a partner in many of these creative approaches. They have built a very fine intermodal transportation system that has become the hub of Cedar Rapids. And the same thing is true of the Hudson-Bergen rail line, the regional headquarters have been very cooperative. Of course, we have to work as a team with regions and headquarters to help see those grants through. So, that’s what really makes this a challenging and fun project. It’s not about any one thing. It is about building community consensus and being creative, and having all sorts of people issues, as well as environmental issues, energy issues, engineering issues, that have to be solved. And that’s what makes this a very dynamic environment in which to work.

Many in the transit industry are concerned about next year’s reauthorization of TEA 21. APTA, which is finalizing its wish list for the reauthorization, is lobbying for $14 billion in guaranteed funding by 2009. How does that align with what you think Congress will make available?

Dorn: Well, the principal of the predictability and stability is important to this administration and one of the key success points to TEA 21. So I feel confident, and the Transportation Secretary [Norman Mineta] feels confident, that that is the approach that the Bush Administration will pursue because it has leveraged so much important state and local investment. We’ll be having the conditions and performance report that comes out every two years out shortly. And it’s an amazing record of how the federal funding has really leveraged local and state support and has allowed, because of that predictability, the local government to pursue projects that make sense on a longer term. The second key is that, obviously, public transportation ridership has grown by 28% overall over the past six years. Of course there’s a little dip in that at this point, which is not surprising. But it’s more than double the growth of surface transportation. So that growing demand puts the burden on all of us involved in public transportation to think of new and different ways to leverage and increase the value of a dollar. So I think that’s an important element that we want to enhance our innovative financing and private-sector involvement with public transportation projects. So, to talk about the level of federal funding is premature. We’re working very aggressively with the Administration to define a program that makes sense in the context of all the federal needs. I can’t really talk about those sorts of things. One of the things that is very important to the Secretary and me is program streamlining, particularly to the smaller properties. Some of the requirements of getting grants have grown so as to make one question how much they’re value-added and are there some ways that we can encourage a more integrated network of services, rather than a pot of money for this particular kind of rider and a pot of money for this particular kind of vehicle. What does that do, or how does that skew local decision-making? And we think with this growing sophistication of public transportation over the last year, I think there’s real merit in considering some streamlining proposals that will make a difference to our customers and it will give them more flexibility.

On a different topic, there’s been much discussion, especially within the supplier community, about procurement reform. I’m wondering from the FTA’s perspective if there’s anything that can be done to make the process more efficient for the transit properties and the suppliers.

Dorn: We want to thoroughly evaluate what APTA’s procurement task force recommends and see if these objectives can be reasonably accomplished, like the lifting of the five-year contracting term limitation [announced in the FTA’s May 29, 2002, Dear Colleague letter]. There was an awful lot of discussion and input and at the end of the day, I felt it was important we make a timely decision. So, that sort of thing is happening in a number of specific areas with the procurement task force. We have to make procurement work for the riding public, both in terms of timelines and fairness, and the legality of it. Sometimes I think the government can get lost in process, and we need to step back and make sure the processes we require are really value-added to the taxpayer. Sometimes tradition can guide you more than it should.

Have you been able to reduce the time it takes to process grants? Dorn: Reducing the grant processing time was part of our strategic business plan. So 80% of our grants are out the door in 60 days. And we have improved by 16 to 18 percentage points. I’m proud of the accomplishments we’ve made so far, but we need to go even further in regards to that.

Has this improved grant processing been accomplished through the application of more manpower?

Dorn: That’s part of it, but most of it is making sense of the process by which we do it... What can we review simultaneously, rather than sequentially? How can we be more thorough in the beginning of the grant process so the grantee knows exactly what is required so that we don’t get up to the end of the grant process, or they think it’s the end, and there are items missing. It’s mapping the business process and seeing how we can eliminate steps, reduce steps, be talking to each other, headquarters, fields, environments, engineers in a more business-like fashion. So it’s all of those things. We’ve also made it a focus. We’ve said, ‘Hey, this is our goal.’ And, frankly, performance accountability relates to that. If you haven’t assisted or produced in that kind of goal, then that’s reflected in your performance appraisal. Without being dictatorial, we did come up with this as a senior management team, that this was an important measure to the grantee that we produce the grants in a more timely fashion. And there have been some complaints about that. And in my outreach I heard that, rather regularly. We’re taking the bull by the horns.

Was this streamlining of the grant process part of the 12-month action plan you put together in January?

Dorn: That was one of the elements. We want to improve our business processes. For example, we have one of the best, most advanced electronic grant-processing capabilities in government. And there are ways to improve that and do other things so that the frustration of working with the federal government is minimized. And we also think that it’s very important to be a leader in promoting results, which in public transportation is fundamentally an increase in ridership. So, we need to structure what we think, what we talk about and what we do in ways that always focus on getting more people to utilize public transportation — not more buses on the routes, but more people to ride. And that’s a very important emphasis. We want public transportation to be the mode of choice in America. And by that I mean that in every community an individual should be able to have the choice to ride or utilize public transportation. They should know, even if they don’t choose to do so, that their neighbor could and should be well-served.

What can the FTA do to expand its role in improving public transportation beyond its grant-making responsibilities?

Dorn: In government and in the FTA we have a real opportunity to have a platform to market the very successful projects and programs that are going on in this country and innovations that are taking place. So I think we have to talk about those successes in ways that make them infectious. Then we have to put our money where our mouth is in the sense of providing technical assistance to grantees to help them make that happen at a community level. For example, the latest study sponsored by APTA about the benefit to energy conservation and environment of public transportation. That is a phenomenal study and we have not really had that kind of data in the past to kind of change the dimension of the debate or the discussion. We very often talk about the importance of public transportation because it provides rider choice and it’s a good alternative in communities. But, my gosh, even now with the percent of ridership that public transportation has, the contribution it makes to energy conservation and to environmental conditions is one of the best things going in a non-regulatory win-win kind of way. So I view that it’s our job to help spread the word about that, so that we get more support for public transportation in more communities across the country.

How do you accomplish that?

Dorn: Part of that is the bully pulpit. Part of that is in the criteria that we utilize in our New Starts projects so that it can be made clear when a local entity, like a community, is trying to figure out whether it should expand the highway or support a transit project, that we can have those kinds of data available to the localities. And then it would also help instruct us as to the kind of projects that should be built. I would like to see that we have, in some areas, more performance incentives as part of our grant-making process. We are, and need to be more, about results. For agencies that produce results we think that maybe they should get more to encourage that to happen across the country. There are a lot of opportunities for leadership in state, local and federal transportation agencies. We also need to be better about recruiting non-traditional partners to help us talk about and act on public transportation projects. I think whether it’s the mayors, the governors or the county commissioners, they all have a tremendous role to play in figuring out what their communities are going to look like from a transportation perspective. I think it’s really important that transit has a seat at the local policy-making table. And it doesn’t happen in every community. We have to push that, not only have the transit agency leader push that, but also if we can use outside forces to help influence the mayors and county commissioners and other elected officials to help understand how important public transportation is, then we can push from the outside and top down and bottom up. It’s about coalition building and consensus building. That’s an important role in government these days.

Talk a little bit about BRT (bus rapid transit). The FTA has been a strong supporter of the development of BRT.

Dorn: FTA is very interested in cost-effective technology, and this appears to be one that has real promise. We have an interest in marketing this kind of approach because it appears to have worked in a number of areas. Everywhere from L.A. to Pittsburgh and places in between, they have seen some real important results. We’re not trying to drive the local decision toward a particular mode. That’s not what we’re trying to do. But we think that we should structure our program and focus our efforts on those kinds of cost-effective technologies, particularly since money does not grow on trees and the public transportation needs seem to. It’s an important effort. We have to leverage our investments at every level.

The industry is having a hard time defining BRT because it’s being implemented in different ways. Some properties are looking for million-dollar vehicles with high-tech bells and whistles, while others are more interested in something more traditional and more inexpensive.

Dorn: I need to learn more about that. My gut instinct is that sometimes we, in this industry, tend to bell and whistle things. And I am not sure that if you were to test the cost-efficiency of some of these highest tech approaches in certain areas that it would pass the test. So I think that’s an issue that we have to grapple with together. For example, you go to a place like L.A. and they haven’t gone the high-tech route at all, and it’s produced incredible results, with 30% to 40% increases in ridership and a third of those being new riders. And they don’t have the state-of-the-art bus. They don’t even have a designated roadway. I think we can be overwhelmed with the bells and whistles and the non-standard approach to things and I think that is not going to work in the future.

What’s the status of your relationship with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)? I know they’ve been more focused on aviation. Dorn: In the last few months, the TSA has expanded its efforts in the surface arena, so we worked closely with Admiral Richard Bennis [associate under secretary for Maritime and Land Security]. In fact, we’re moving forward with the TSA on a memorandum of agreement that will establish how we work together to make sure that security is a value-added in public transportation. I think our overall goal is what the Transportation Secretary has said on other occasions. We have a three-legged stool of economic vitality, personal mobility and security. And all three of those pieces make an integrated whole. So we have to be very careful that we don’t pull off one and then the stool becomes unbalanced. And this is not what TSA has been saying, but there have been some pretty outrageous kind of proposals. Some people early on said we should have baggage checks on subway stops. You get my point. We have to very carefully construct, based on a prioritization of resources not only within transit but among transportation, the level of effort that is appropriate. I always go back to the point of the people and the coordination issue, front-line workers being trained, emergency response plans in place and being drilled and updated are two very important components. And the issue of capital funding in some of the subway areas is a very critical need that has been identified. Now, whether or not that will come out in the mix I don’t know. That’s where I strongly support the President’s approach of homeland security, where you can get a view of the whole landscape at 30,000 feet, and then prioritize your resources. I’m not in a position as an FTA administrator to say whether port security or subways are more or less a threat or a danger or risk. That’s the purpose of having people who look at all the things. I can bring to the table what we know to be a risk, but we can’t do everything.

Should transit properties depend on the FTA to relay information from the FBI about possible terrorist activity in their areas or should they be working independently with local or regional FBI offices?

Dorn: We’re trying to tackle it from both sides, and it works fairly effectively. First of all, we believe it is really important for the transit agencies to be hooked in and a part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTS). That is in 50 places around the country. And that is where the FBI and the transit agencies are on the same page and in the same time zone. We also have been working very closely with the FBI from the headquarters level, not only to encourage them to induce the local FBI to involve the transit agencies, which they have done because they think it’s a good thing, but also so the FBI headquarters know what we know about threat and vulnerability assessments. We’ve reached some of the senior folks at the FBI and other agencies about the results of our threat and vulnerability assessment. So we think the more interaction, the better at all levels. We have been very vigorous, as appropriate, in terms of letting local folks know when we hear something from the FBI that would be useful. However, we can tell the system is working because on occasion when this has occurred, we will hear almost simultaneously from the local transit agency that has been involved in the JTTS, as we do from the HQ. You cannot have a flawless system. What we are saying in transit is you can never do enough to prevent an attack. What we’re talking about is mitigating the risks. I regret to say that, but it’s a reality.

Before you came to the FTA, you were president of the National Health Museum. What motivated you to take this position?

Dorn: A few things. The leadership in this administration of President Bush and the leadership of this department in [Assistant Secretary] Michael Jackson and Secretary Mineta. I’ve known both of them for years, and I’ve admired their skill and the leadership they have exhibited and are exhibiting. So that was real important to me. I always loved being at the Department of Transportation. And I really enjoy the public policy dialogue and feeling like you can be involved and make a difference. What I’ve learned even more, since I’ve been here, is how interesting and diverse the challenge is in public transportation. I knew how important it was to the community, but I didn’t know all the fascinating nuances of making public transportation on the local level. I felt very lucky to be here. I had no expectation that I would come back into the public arena, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

What would you like your FTA legacy to be?

Dorn: I would like to be able to say that I produced results that mattered for public transportation — increased ridership and focus on customers. I’d also like to say that I helped to improve the process of government so that local public transit agencies could be responsive to riders. And that we all had an enriching and fun experience while we were doing that.

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