Management & Operations

Taking Transit to the Next Level

Posted on July 13, 2007 by Alex Roman, Associate Editor

Delon Hampton - Delon Hampton & Associates What are the key challenges facing the transit industry?
The main challenge facing transit properties today is funding — obtaining the money to build, operate and maintain transit systems for the benefit of our nation and the people they serve. Even when construction funds are available from the federal government, some properties have difficulty finding the money necessary to ¬operate and maintain their systems at a level of ¬service acceptable to the existing and potential ridership. Those properties without a dedicated source of funding are especially at risk. Inability to maintain and operate an existing system in an attractive and efficient manner would lead to a drop in ridership and loss of public support. How can transit properties best take advantage of industry consultants to address these challenges?
In order to maximize the use of consultants, properties must have a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish. Then, with the help of their consultants, they can explore the various paths to accomplish their goals, the cost of each option, the environmental impacts anticipated, techniques for mitigating neighborhood concerns during construction, etc. To assist in this process, it is strongly recommended that the assigned FTA program oversight contractors be on board during the planning stage to provide assistance to the properties during this critical period in the project development process. The net result should be a reduction in overall project costs and a more satisfied property, local government and public. For your practice, what is the hottest area of the country right now in regard to project development?
For Delon Hampton & Associates’ practice, the hottest area of the country right now, in regard to project development, is the East Coast. From Florida to Massachusetts there is a substantial amount of work either in progress or soon to be started. Have you seen acceleration in New Starts funding being disbursed to grantees?
Yes, the pace seems to have accelerated. Our industry needed the infusion of funds and the net result will be improved public transportation for our nation. Ridership reached a 50-year high in 2006. Do you thing public transportation is prepared to take ridership to a new level and, if so, how will that be accomplished?
If public transportation is adequately planned and funded at all levels of government, there is no reason it cannot handle any increase in ridership. The key is excellent planning and ridership projections coupled with good customer service and the availability of funds to make needed improvements in a timely manner. A particular hot topic these days is sustainability. In what ways are consultants promoting green practices in their own businesses as well as in project development for transit systems?
We are having our people trained in areas of sustainability design in order to be able to provide that service to our clients. Increasingly, that area of design is becoming more critical to the successes of consulting firms, so any who neglect it will be in peril in the years to come. Jerome Premo - DMJM Harris What are the key challenges facing the transit industry?
The challenge is to be visionary. To define a vision for the role of public transportation in our nation’s life. Flowing from it are three imperatives: financing, people and delivery, whether it’s of services, on the one hand, or capital projects, on the other. In the absence of a vision, people are not going to pledge money. In the absence of vision, younger people are not going to be attracted to this wonderful business. And it is going to take people and finance, in fact, to deliver services. How can transit systems take best advantage of industry consultants to address these challenges?
An overarching issue is whether or not we in the consulting community and the clients whom we serve — most of whom are public sector clients — can effectively partner with each other. Can we really work together as opposed to having an us versus them relationship? Have you seen acceleration in New Starts funding being disbursed to grantees?
No. But there’s an interesting thing; there are maybe fewer projects getting into full funding, but they’re pretty big projects. An example is New York City’s 2nd Avenue subway. I’m impressed that the Feds ended up being capable of supporting such a big project. But the real issue, it seems to me, in accelerating New Starts is who gets into preliminary engineering, and just the sense of confidence and speed about moving through the pipeline. There’s not a lot of confidence that you can move confidently and quickly through the pipeline. Ridership reached a 50-year high in 2006. Do you think public transportation is prepared to take ridership to a new level and, if so, how will that be accomplished?
I don’t think we’re ready. Some places have financing in place that’s allowing for orderly expansion, but I don’t think that’s the rule. Without adequate funding and the infrastructure needed to carry added people, we’re going to be very hard-pressed to expand. Are you seeing workforce development issues in your own practice? If so, how is your company addressing this issue with regard to technical and administrative talent?
We’re developing professional development tracks for three categories of workers. The first of these is our technical professionals, because underpinning our work has to be professional excellence, technical excellence, whether it’s in tunnel design, or station architecture, or maintenance facility design, or techniques for construction management. The second is a project manager track. We’re investing significantly in the development of a younger wave of big-time project managers. The third is a professional development track. It’s financial support. It’s those people who are not technical people/professional engineering and planning, but we need to be cognizant of that part of our workforce as well. We have a major recruitment initiative underway where we’re trying to turn our workforce into a search firm by providing incentives for referring new hires. Stephen Beard - HDR/S.R. Beard Associates What are the key challenges facing transit properties these days?
Funding remains the key challenge. Many properties are without a dedicated funding source and have to compete each budget cycle with a growing list of other local services and needs. In several localities there are legislative attacks on the tax base for dedicated funding or on the dedicated funding source itself. While the magnitude of federal dollars available for transit has increased significantly over the years, the competition for the discretionary federal dollars also continues to grow. How can transit properties best take advantage of industry consultants to address these challenges?
First, properties can take advantage of the financial expertise of industry consultants. The properties might need good planning or engineering consultants to develop a project but they also need help with the question of how we are going to pay for it in the short term and operate it in the long term. Consultants can also help transit properties take a comprehensive look at the services they are currently providing in light of evolving economic development goals, changes in demographics and emerging development patterns. For your practice, what is the hottest area of the country right now in regard to project development?
The fast-growth cities have and will continue to be hotbeds for project development. Cities in the western U.S. with strong financial capabilities and growing populations like Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver, are moving forward with large programs of transit projects. New York City also has a very aggressive project development program with rehabilitation of existing infrastructure and major new projects. We are also seeing more interest all around the country in lower-cost transit investments like BRT and streetcars. Have you seen acceleration in New Starts funding being disbursed to grantees?
No. Industry studies have shown that the New Starts pipeline of projects has shrunk over the past few years. Dollar volume is up, but the number of new projects is not. The federal New Starts process is increasingly difficult to navigate. We have found more and more properties forgoing federal funds and implementing projects with local dollars as a quicker, more cost-effective solution to project delivery. Ridership reached a 50-year high in 2006. Do you think public transportation is prepared to take ridership to a new level and, if so, how will that be accomplished?
Ridership will continue to grow. Growth will be steady with some dramatic increases in the Sunbelt cities. The growth will be driven by environmental factors, fuel prices, demographics and changes in land use. With consumers looking for choices, reliable, high-quality transit service will continue to gain their interest. There is available capacity to absorb much of the ridership growth while new services and facilities will be needed in selected markets. Alan Wulkan - Infraconsult LLC What are the key challenges facing transit properties today?
Workforce development. Attracting the necessary number of people, and frankly, attracting the younger professionals or students coming out of college to our industry. There are a lot of competing industries, and in today’s world, a lot of students who are coming out of school who want to make a difference. I’m not sure transit systems have positioned themselves well to attract the kind of workforce that we need for the future. How can transit properties take advantage of the industry consultants to address those challenges?
The consulting industry suffers from many of the same challenges in this regard as the transit systems do. For a very, very long time, we have been hesitant to make major investments as an industry in our people. Our work rules are in many ways, both for the private and the public sector, the same as they were 20, 30 and 40 years ago. And, yet, newer industries have begun to recognize that the workforce of the future is going to work differently. Workers think differently. They’re concerned over different issues about family and the economy and the environment, and I don’t think our industry has adapted as quickly as many others have in the new economy. For your practice, what is the hottest area of the country right now in regard to project development?
For my practice the "New Starts" areas. We are working in cities like Norfolk, Va., Honolulu, Phoenix — many big growth areas. It is a good time to be in our industry. There’s more money than ever before at all levels of government. It does have its challenges of how quickly it flows, which causes some political challenges. But there is more money and more emphasis on our business. At the same time with environmental issues beginning to dominate the political field, we in the industry have become part of that discussion more and more as people look for alternative ways to travel. Have you seen acceleration and New Starts funding being dispersed to grantees?
Well, all the indications I’ve seen is that the pipeline for New Starts funding is getting longer and it’s getting harder to get funding. The FTA is discussing streamlining their process, ¬becoming more business-oriented, using different criteria to make awards, but frankly, as of today, I don’t think the results or the evidence says that that’s made a difference yet. We have seen more and more projects taking longer and longer to get from the environmental process to implementation to construction. And I think that’s going to be a great challenge for our industry. In what ways are consultants promoting “green” practices in their own businesses as well as project development for transit systems?
I really believe that one of the strengths we have in public transportation is our ties to a sustainable future. We in transit can truly demonstrate we’re part of that solution. In the past, in the U.S., we have actually been lagging behind our emphasis on sustainability and the issues dealing with global warming, but more and more you see now consultants that have LEED-certified professionals who have been trained in understanding how to design and implement both buildings and other infrastructure improvements that are green, that are sustainable and are sensitive to the environment. Are you seeing development issues in your practice, and if so, how are you addressing those issues?
We’ve had very little problem attracting a very high-quality workforce. But it’s at the younger level, the entry level, where we have had a more difficult time identifying the best and the brightest that are available. And maybe we’re not looking in the right places. So we’re on a very fast pace of growth, but most of it has been at the senior, more experienced level. And when we’ve advertised, when we tried to go word-of-mouth, when we’ve looked around our own contacts, it’s still a challenge to find those younger professionals that we can build our practice on for the future. Paul Skoutelas - Parsons Brinckerhoff What are the key challenges facing transit properties these days?
The perennial to chronic issues of tight budgets, continuing growth and operating expenses, and the challenge to contain them, continue to press very heavily on transit organizations. Related to that is finding new and additional sources for operations, particularly for maintaining bus and rail services. Also, with capital programs we’re seeing continued challenges for the agencies to manage their programs effectively and bring them in on budget and on time as expected. So the challenge for our transit organizations is not only to fulfill those expectations but, in so doing, to be looking in the more non-traditional ways, such as alternate project delivery and the opportunities for public-private partnerships. How can transit properties best take advantage of industry consultants to address these challenges?
Consultants can bring both a breadth and depth of experience to help address these many issues and challenges that transit organizations face and do it with a fresh perspective and an independent perspective that oftentimes is difficult to achieve just through one’s own staff. Many of us in the industry have come from many years on the public side ¬operating and managing transit organizations, so we can bring very practical hands-on solutions to the challenges. For your practice, what is the hottest area of the country right now in regard to project development?
The good news is that we’re seeing very robust business activity within all of our geographic areas around the country. I would say that the western U.S. and especially California, is leading the way in terms of business activity, but it’s pretty healthy all across the country. Have you seen an acceleration in New Starts funding being disbursed to grantees?
What I would say about New Starts funding is that fiscal 2008 is shaping up as a record year — about $1.4 billion of New Starts funding that will be made available, including new full-funding grant agreements for major projects around the country. That’s a very positive development, and I think that we continue to see the strong interest and demand in the New Starts program all around the country. Unfortunately we’ve seen that the list, the so-called pipeline of new projects, has dropped dramatically in the last couple of years and that’s certainly a major concern for the industry. Are you seeing workforce development issues in your own practice? If so, how is your company addressing these issues with regard to technical and administrative talent?
We certainly are, and it’s really an industry-wide phenomenon, and again it covers not only the private sector, but the public sector as well. Something that is here to stay for as long as we can see is a great competition for talent throughout our industry, for engineers, architects, planners and administrators in the transit business. We have a number of programs that are specifically aimed at attracting that talent and retaining that talent at PB, with a major emphasis on younger professionals; those people that have 10 years or less of work experience. Not to use too many buzz words, but we have the professional growth network and the practice area network where we link professionals from all around the U.S., and in many cases from around the world, in our offices. People who have similar work skills all in terms of helping share information, share experiences in helping to build a professional capacity both on the technical side as well as those that we might consider a non-technical staff as well. The other is a robust training effort where again we’re looking at keeping our project managers, our technical staff and non-technical staff current with the knowledge and skills they need to perform their jobs.

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