As the idea of how the public transit industry takes part in the larger picture of mobility and the role the federal government plays in funding projects continues to change, the consultant industry and the expertise firms provide are an invaluable source in finding ways to provide riders with increased transportation solutions.
METRO spoke with several consultants who not only discussed the nation’s growing infrastructure needs and the current funding challenge, but also the growing popularity of other transportation options, such as ride-hailing, microtransit, and bike-sharing, and how they may work together with public transit. Additionally, they discussed how trends outside of America may be adopted here in the future and the unique perspective they bring to their clients.
National Transit Practice Leader
How does your public and private sector knowledge, as well as Federal Government perspective benefit you and your clients?
The experience of working in public and private sector gives me broader insight and understanding of the client perspective, having knowledge of the operating and regulatory challenges that they face.
What industry trends are you seeing?
There are many trends occurring in the industry with agencies devoting efforts to different priorities, including the focus on State of Good Repair — Asset Management — and the faster delivery of capital projects using alternative delivery methodologies — that is, stressing the ability to be able to have more confidence in total costs and schedules of these projects. There are tremendous impacts to the various funding streams affecting agencies’ capital and operating planning.
Also, there is greater focus on new technologies — autonomous vehicles, integration of Uber and Lyft in solving first- and last-mile issues, and commitment to zero-emissions systems.
At CATS, you helped transform the idea of public transit in the region. what do you feel transit’s role will be in transforming the idea of transportation in the future?
With the advent of new and disruptive technologies, the transit industry is on the precipice of major transformation. The role of transit agencies is changing and they are being forced at looking at new ways to deliver mobility.
‘Mobility-as-a-Service’ is a major consideration in both the U.S. and Canada. New models of service delivery are being demonstrated through partnerships with TNCs and other partners. Microtransit pilots are being implemented and autonomous vehicles offer alternatives to augment and deliver services. FTA is funding innovative service approaches through their Mobility Sandbox grant program. These technological changes are impacting short-term as well as service and capital planning strategies.
How much will the current climate in D.C. hinder future investment in public transit programs?
We are confident in Congress’ commitment to infrastructure spending, though it seems the current Administration’s policies are more focused on rural versus urban programs, which will affect transit funding.
What opportunities do you see in the transportation infrastructure sector in the next five years and what can companies like AECOM be prepared to do?
AECOM is capable of offering fully-integrated project delivery, which puts us in a unique position among our competitors. Being able to design, build, finance, and operate means we can offer our clients all of the services they need to bring their visions to life. We are establishing the next generation of design/build and alternative-delivery methodologies and are significantly involved in developing some of the new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, Hyperloop, electric buses, and other zero-emission strategies.
Gregory A. Kelly
When agencies are developing projects, how important has the customer’s feedback become?
The customer’s feedback has always been important in the project development process, but today it goes beyond what is required by NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). Transit agencies are now focused on building customers for life — not just to get a project built. Many agencies are working to develop good communication with communities before they are impacted by a construction project. By building trust with customers, agencies can develop effective public outreach when projects are shovel ready.
The customer’s ability to give and receive feedback is greater than it was even just five years ago — mostly because of social media and the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) to allow the public to ‘see’ and experience projects virtually before they are built. Using these tools to get the public involved early in project development reduces design and construction issues, gains community buy-in, likely results in a better project, and builds long-term support for the agency.
On a bridge replacement project in New England, our client is using a 3D model-based BIM approach to develop a contextually accurate model of the entire city based on LiDAR scans and survey. The base model will be used to develop visualizations that will show stakeholders what the project will look like, both during construction and on completion. The model is being used to evaluate and communicate design alternatives, and to check for issues and conflicts between the proposed project and existing facilities.
What trends are you seeing outside the U.S. that could eventually make its way over or perhaps grow in popularity?
Transit agencies both here and abroad are increasingly interested in realizing the potential of asset management to achieve organizational goals while balancing costs, risks, and performance. As our clients develop their asset management capabilities, one of the biggest challenges they face is organizational culture change. We help transit agencies design and implement asset management programs by establishing a clear concept of operations and a road map for getting there. We have used digital strategies to drive efficiency and productivity improvements, recognizing that having the right information to support decision making is critical to realizing the benefits of asset management.
Transit owners and operators are also exploring the use of sensors and a variety of other means to collect data, identify potential problems, and improve monitoring. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being considered for its potential to improve maintenance, operations, and construction logistics. For instance, AI can be used to evaluate passenger behavior in rail stations. There is broad agreement that digital technology applications, such as ‘smart’ ticketing or digital traffic management systems, hold great promise to improve the customer experience.
A growing number of operators are developing catenary-free light rail and tram networks using continuous ground contact systems or onboard batteries. For instance, for a client in Australia, we designed a catenary-free two-mile light rail line. As part of our planning assignment for a proposed streetcar in a major East Coast city, we assessed and reviewed possible off-wire operations, including in-ground supplies and on-board storage of energy in batteries or supercapacitors.
With many agencies reporting lower ridership, what do you feel the public transit industry can do to revamp its approach?
Forward-thinking transit authorities are considering riders’ overall mobility needs, rather than focusing narrowly on the operation of buses and trains, and firms like mine are increasingly being asked to help cities, states, and regional agencies better serve current riders and attract new ones.
A significant trend involves public transit systems partnering with other transportation companies to offer first-mile and last-mile connections to public transit stations. We are exploring a range of planning and advisory strategies to improve first-mile and last-mile connections to transit, including bike and pedestrian plans, restructuring traditional bus and paratransit service to better feed into rapid transit lines, and so-called microtransit and partnering with ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. For instance, we assisted a West Coast transit agency in preparing the application for a $20 million federal grant for its first mile/last mile project, which will improve connectivity and access to light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit lines. The project includes simple but important station access improvements, such as better crosswalks, trail connections, sidewalks, bike lanes, and traffic signals that help fill in the last non-motorized network gaps.
Another interesting trend is how connected and automated vehicles might contribute to first-mile, last-mile solutions. For instance, for a Midwest city, we are leading systems engineering and design for a proposed service using automated vehicle shuttles on roadways to address first-, last-mile challenges. It is expected that initially, transit ‘ambassadors’ would be onboard and at stop locations to explain the technology to passengers.
Discuss how WSP works with DBEs, MBEs, SBEs, etc., and how it important it is for the company and the industry.
We believe that minority, women-owned, and small businesses are integral to the success of our industry, and to our own performance for our clients. In Illinois, through contracts with several public agencies, we’re vetting, hiring, and working with MBE/WBE/SBE firms to help them to succeed. We advise them on how to pursue work, manage the business, build their teams, enhance their project management skills, and strengthen their portfolios.
For a major West Coast transit client, we have established a mentor-protégé program for qualified MBE/WBE/SBE firms. We develop action plans with each protégé firm — updated every six months — including skills transfer and training opportunities, to help grow and strengthen the businesses. For instance, we led a marketing and sales mentor training session and conducted a workshop on federal acquisition regulations, for firms in the program.
National Transit/Rail Market Leader/Sr. VP
You have both public and private sector knowledge, how does that benefit you, as well as your clients?
I have worked on the public side at both a staff level and an executive level for a total of 12 years during my 30-year career. This experience afforded me the opportunity to understand the internal and external challenges that public agencies encounter every day to deliver service to their customers. Working at a public agency helped me to understand the financial balances, the customer needs, and the political priorities that staff have to navigate to expand, retain, and refine service. All of this makes me a better and more empathetic consultant. It allows me to understand that to be a trusted advisor I would have to create the space to have any and all conversations, not be judgmental, discuss strategies and hypotheticals, and help build alliances.
What new trends you are seeing that are helping projects reach completion sooner or at least in the client’s desired time frame?
You see transportation providers looking for ways to deliver some of their projects without federal funds. In these cases, I think that we still need to prioritize making the project environmentally sound and sensitive while being sustainable. In addition, they need to not sacrifice the inclusion of the public’s voice.
From a consultants’ point of view, what is your biggest challenge when working on a project and how do you try to overcome that challenge?
The biggest challenge when working on a project is when a client is working to deliver based on a politically-driven schedule and not a schedule based on industry experience and best practices. In these cases, I try to clearly communicate the realistic durations of project delivery to the client. In addition, I try to identify what project elements can be executed simultaneously to expedite project delivery. I also try to use technical editing teams to review and refine documents to minimize common errors that are made when production is rushed. This approach helps to minimize agency reviews, thus ultimately saving time.
I also have found that strategically-scheduled project workshops with the client helps the team to make coordinated decisions about a large number of items in a short period of time. This can help a team gain time savings that may not have otherwise been realized.
How beneficial is it to be active in transportation associations?
This is extremely critical. Transportation associations provide a collegial environment to exchange information, work with other members to address industry initiatives, and build relationships. Professionals in the transit/rail industry tend to work across the nation in various geographies throughout their careers. These associations help them to maintain long-term relationships and explore opportunities.
How do you think it will change in the future?
I think that these types of associations will always be relevant. The exchange of best practices and current information helps agencies advance their programs and benefit from lessons learned. These associations need to continue to be the voice for customers. They also will need to allow for new and non-traditional partners in their memberships.
The recent appropriations bill was somewhat of a big win for public transit, do you think that may become a trend?
We are definitely the beneficiary of the Fiscal Year 18/Fiscal Year 19 budget agreement that provides more than $60 billion in additional domestic spending, with the transit program being a beneficiary of that increase. Congress will still have to reach a budget agreement for future fiscal years beyond 2019, though. Programs, like the Capital Investment Grants program, still face uncertainty in Fiscal Year 2020 and Fiscal Year 2021, as to the program funding levels. Further, the overall transit program faces substantial funding issues due to future projected Trust Fund deficits. To prevent those deficits, Congress must either increase the gas tax or find an alternative to the gas tax. It is incumbent upon Congress to identify a source of dedicated funding, because I don’t think anybody believes that the surface transportation program will receive further General Fund transfer in the next surface transportation bill.
With Congress adopting a $1.5 trillion tax bill and increased deficit spending through increasing the budget caps for FY 18 and FY 19, the reality is this is a General Fund commitment that, unless the economy does incredibly well, will squeeze future General Fund investments. Thus, while transit received a nice bump up in funding for FY 18 and FY 19, the long-term need for dedicated and sustainable funding to stabilize the surface transportation program has not been addressed.
I’m not trying to be pessimistic, but it is the fiscal reality for the next surface transportation authorization bill. At present, there seems to be no agreement on Capitol Hill. There is no consensus on the source of funding to sustain the surface transportation program. There is a general recognition of the need for dedicated federal funding, but House and Senate leadership have not stepped up to take the necessary political step to propose a solution.
The additional funding in FY 18 and FY 19 will greatly assist projects in the Capital Investment Grants pipeline and advance projects to construction. The Capital Investment Grants Working Group and the Community Streetcar Coalitions are very appreciative of the additional funding for projects, but I do see storm clouds on the horizon. Starting with this next session, Congress will have to take the step of trying to address the long-term financial situation of the Trust Fund. It will be challenging since there will be an election in November 2020 that will make it very difficult to resolve this issue. Due to the reluctance to address a tax increase prior to the 2020 election, I am concerned that the surface transportation program will limp into 2021 with uncertainty about what the future of the program and the lack of dedicated funding. This next session of Congress will have to focus on trying to identify a politically accepted source of long-term funding and then develop the political will for long-term, sustainable funding for the Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Account.
Does that long-term solution still involve raising the gas tax, or have we moved beyond that?
At this point in time, of all the solutions, it is the easiest to implement because it’s already in place. Having said that, is it the long-term solution? No. At some point in time, we have to address the impact of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and electric vehicles (EVs), such as the wear-and-tear they cause on the highway system, their impact on land use, the role of transit, and the fact that AVs and EVs don’t pay into the Trust Fund because they don’t consume gasoline.
Therefore, there’s been talk of proposals ranging from a vehicle miles traveled fee to a carbon tax. But to date, there is no consensus on an alternative to the gasoline tax and if that alternative would supplement or replace the gas tax. There is recognition that additional revenues are needed, but there’s been no agreement on the revenue source. This uncertainty looms for the next Congress. It is highly unlikely it gets taken care of this Congress. Presumably then, it has to get done in the next Congress because that’s when the FAST Act authorization bill expires.
As funding continues to be an issue, do you feel state and local referendums will continue to be popular?
Yes. There is growing need for funding for surface transportation that is not being met with federal funding commensurate with the need. That’s not to say we need to dismantle the federal program, it’s just that the federal program has not caught up with the demand and need for transportation solutions around the nation. Moreover, federal funding plays a very important role for capital projects, such as bus rapid transit, light rail, commuter rail, and streetcar projects. Because of that, localities have to look for alternatives to address their surface transportation needs. Consequently, localities are taking their future in their own hands and finding success at the ballot box. As a result, localities with success at the ballot box are moving ahead with their transportation projects and not relying on federal funding to address all of their needs.