As the public transportation industry continues to struggle with funding, many agencies are looking for ways to deliver projects differently, with the consultant industry helping to lead the way.
METRO spoke with several consultants to not only discuss best practices for utilizing alternative project delivery, but the factors that are fueling public transportation’s growth, including the way millennials approach their transportation choices.
Discuss the reasons behind the resurgence of the streetcar.
Streetcar systems are good distributors and have a little more permanence than bus lines, so the development community likes them. It is kind of like going back to the future — streetcars were very popular in the past. As we see more of the gentrification of America and more people looking for options in the urban area, streetcars make a lot of sense.
Also, there are some communities that have a very difficult time in today’s environment raising federal or local monies for more expensive transit solutions, and the streetcar, although it doesn’t provide a lot of relief for congestion in certain areas, is a lot cheaper to build than light rail for some transit-trip purposes. Certainly in some communities, the modern streetcar has been looked at as an alternative to light rail, not necessarily a replacement. The main reason for that is it fits the urban environment really well.
What other trends are you seeing?
Land use, or transit oriented development, in coordination with public transit, is very popular and a hot topic almost everywhere you go. For years and years, we talked about it, now we’re actually seeing some really good planning taking place in urban areas, both old and new, where rail is being developed or is already in place.
The concept today that public transit is an investment as well as a transportation option, to me, is a huge trend happening in this country — that’s a cultural shift. This is my 41st year in the public transit industry.
When I first started, it was a primary way of moving people, particularly in the new start communities where transit had been mainly for the transit dependent. Trying to attract new riders over the last 40 years has been the mantra of the New Starts program, but it has really been focused at the rider — both the transit dependent and new riders — in competition with the automobile. Now, public transit is being looked at much more as not only a safety net for people who need to use it, but also as an investment tool. It is much more about how to use the transit investment to grow a better city and create new investment around the systems. There is just a lot of exciting planning going on that had not been seriously undertaken in the last 25 to 30 years.
What is your outlook for a new transportation authorization bill?
I am generally an optimist, but ever since the first authorization bill not one has ever been reauthorized on time. In this political environment, if somebody was to tell me that we are going to get the very first reauthorization on time and it was going to be a long term well-funded new bill, I would like to say ‘I am drinking your Kool-Aid,’ but I just don’t see it.
Because we have a crisis with the Highway Trust Fund, Congress will find a short-term fix, in my judgment, which will begin to lead us to multiple extensions of the bill. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see a new reauthorization bill until after the 2016 presidential election — I just don’t see the political will for people to come together. There is no longer such a thing as a bipartisan issue. As much as we tried to argue that, and did successfully for a very long time, in today’s political environment everything is partisan. I hope I am proven wrong, but I just don’t see a new long-term bill in the near future.
VP, Canadian Transit Practice
Other than funding, what are the key challenges facing transit properties today?
One of the key challenges transit properties are facing is their own resistance to embrace the transformational period we are embarking upon in public transit today. The industry is still holding onto the perception that they are going to be funded and continue to operate in the same manner it has been for the last number of decades. We are beginning to see some beginnings of a breakthrough in some of the areas, where the challenge that transit properties have is really a unique way of delivering capital projects and operations in the same way.
There seems to be more of this sort of thinking taking place in Canada, can you explain?
There are a couple things Canadians are doing that are different than in the U.S. that contribute to the greater success. One is Canada has a longer history of doing more comprehensive transit network planning. The ‘Big Move’ for Metrolinx and all of its predecessors, the ‘Plan for Vancouver’ and its predecessors, the work being done by AMT and STM in Montreal and their preceding plans, all these current projects are really part of a backbone of a transit network, so the project really drives that whole economic development — it develops new jobs and can successfully be implemented in the context of a transit network.
Also, the role of public sector agencies that are solely focused on public-private partnerships (P3) project delivery, like Infrastructure Ontario and BC Partnerships, are demonstrating its usage in other areas before they ever get to roads and transit projects. What they are doing is providing a forum where all of the legal and commercial terms to engage concessionaires are consistent. They are not reinventing the wheel every time. This allows the people that are bidding on those P3 projects to get a consistent package, which makes it an easier environment within which to bid on some of the P3 projects. It also makes it more attractive for people in the private sector to bid. In the U.S., that is not happening. Projects are happening, but they are happening on an individual basis and each project has to re-create that papering, as I like to call it.
What is the industry doing in the line of recruiting, training and retention?
First of all, there is a recognition the people that we’re trying to retain and recruit come from a different mindset. We use to call it a generation gap, in my time, but they come from a different mindset where they are much more non-auto oriented — they bike, use public transportation, live downtown, and want to work and play in the same place. They also have a much better work/life balance and are much more committed to their environment and their communities. In that context, one of the things I’m doing with individuals I mentor, either officially or informally, is encourage them to find ways of interacting and working with senior professionals, or seasoned professionals, to basically soak up as much knowledge as they can, because they are in a position where they will advance in their career at a much faster rate than I ever did.
On the other side, I encourage many of my contemporaries to provide the younger workforce with leadership opportunities that will expose them in front of the client, so they can actually be recognized for the value of the contributions they bring. The consulting industry, as a whole, can’t really steal employees from one another, because there is not really a lot of people out there. But, if we all take a leadership role in continuing to mentor and provide opportunities to our younger professionals, we will be really proud of the legacies that we have left behind when we retire.
Chair, Public Transit Services
How does your past public transit experience help you in your current position at HNTB?
My past public transit experience has given me a unique perspective on issues faced by our transit clients — agencies that are continuing to deliver high quality projects and services to the public they serve. This experience includes an understanding of the challenges of transit project development, including successfully navigating the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts process so that transit projects can be implemented as soon as possible. It also includes experience in alternative project delivery, such as design-build and P3 implementation, which has helped our transit clients weigh their response to schedule and funding challenges.
Finally, I understand that public transit agencies must provide transparency and accountability to their customers and the general public. This experience has allowed me to develop consensus-based solutions for our transit clients.
Reports show younger people are driving less…what are key ways to attract and retain this demographic?
In this day and age, younger people, or ‘the millennial generation,’ approach their transportation choices differently than past generations. They use public transportation as a way to better utilize the time spent commuting to work by engaging in social media or other pastimes and to save money for other needs. They are not always dependent on a car for their commute to work, for entertainment and shopping — especially where there are good public transportation options. To continue to encourage this trend and keep them riding public transportation, transit agencies must provide frequent and reliable service that provides a predictable trip. Improvements to bus and train schedules, including off-peak and late night trips, will encourage continued ridership gains.
Millennials’ reliance on technology is a key feature for public transportation agencies to exploit. Transit agencies must continue to find ways to streamline fare payment and schedule information through smartphone applications. It is important to note that it is not just millennials that will benefit from these improvements. Better service and easy access to transit will benefit all users.
What is HNTB doing to develop their workforce?
HNTB recognizes that investing in the development of its workforce is core to successfully delivering infrastructure projects to our client’s satisfaction. We have institutionalized a process that ensures that individual development needs are identified and actions taken to help employees develop in their career. Our employees have three broad tracks they can take and develop over the course of their career: technical, project management and management. HNTB provides resources and training to support professional development in each of these tracks. Employees are additionally supported to attend external conferences, as well as through tuition reimbursement to gain degrees, which help them to continue to develop professionally.
As agencies begin exploring alternative project delivery, discuss the consultants’ role in the process?
Often times, an agency will not have undertaken a project in a design-build manner, so they are unfamiliar with the process, the risks, the contracting exposures, as well as with the behaviors and what is expected of them in the process, as compared to what is expected of the design-build contractor.
Based on our design-build experience, as well as other alternative delivery methods, we can work with our clients in explaining the various advantages and disadvantages of a design-build approach for a given project. Realizing that the conversation will be different for a metro versus a highway design-build project, we can temper our discussion based on our expertise in the particular market. We can and have assisted our clients in leading a discussion on risks inherent in alternative delivery methods, potential legislation in the U.S. dealing with methods other than the traditional design-bid-build, and can advise on the packaging of bids.
Also, once they decide the particular path they want to go down and the structure of the project, we help them select the appropriate consultants to put the package together, get the process going, help them oversee the process, and then, ultimately help them review and select design-build contractors. Then again upon their request, help them continue to manage through to the completion and commissioning of the project.
What sort of issues typically call for legislation to be created?
In some states, the use of design-build is not allowed because of the contracting laws that preclude contractors from doing design and designers from being involved with construction, or just the laws themselves preclude the use of design-build, so the client has to go in and get that changed.
Often times, it is because the laws themselves are outdated or not up-to-date with modern contracting methodologies or techniques. The other corollary to that is more and more states do not allow P3 projects, but that is increasing in the other direction. I believe there are about 30 states that do now have P3 legislation, and that has been increasing significantly over the last number of years. Again, these are new contracting methods in a lot of ways, so the laws just need to catch up with the industry.
We are not lobbyists; we are consultants/planners/engineers who can advise our clients of pertinent legislative issues, and we can also review legislation to guide our clients, particularly those who may be less experienced in alternative delivery methods.
Is the usage of P3s growing and is it still a viable option for projects?
Yes, all forms of alternative delivery are continuing to grow in the U.S. While it is more likely to see these various delivery methods on highway rather than transit projects, the pace at which each is growing is increasing.
Legacy Resource Group
As a smaller business, what are your biggest challenges?
Today, you will find more competitors in the market. In the past, many of the larger firms would not have an interest in the smaller projects. The market has changed, and I now notice more firms going after the smaller opportunities. At one time, business development, the DBE coordination, strategic planning and compliance reporting were unique skillsets, and still are, but now larger firms will delve in just to be part of the competition and come in at a lower price than you can.
Also, larger firms used to engage you early on in the process, and now, as they manage their cash flow and get their budgets in place, they will bring you on later into a project. So, from a strategic planning standpoint, your three- to five-year plan is a little more difficult because you never know when your phone is going to ring. For instance, a larger firm may call you in January for an opportunity that starts in June, but you might not get your work order until the next January. So, you have to stay out there, keep networking and continue on, but there is also a cost in doing that.
Does it make sense to specialize or have a broad range of skills?
I try to have a unique scope of what I deliver. I am not an engineer or contractor, but I work with both of those types of firms and a lot of times the DBE coordination — vetting firms, working with firms once they are on board, and helping them with their growth or capacity issues — is something you both have to have a passion for and a skillset to be able to do. Fortunately, I do that well and enjoy it, because I’m a small business myself. I find quite a few larger clients don’t have dedicated staff to do those sorts of things.
Also, from time to time, you get a request for a unique scope of work, and by being able to take that on, you prove yourself and show you have expanded capabilities, which can help your business.
Why is there is such a difference between state and local funding and federal support?
Here in the Texas region, for instance, public transportation is viewed differently than in the past. It helps spur development and gives corporations the initiative to move into the area — if you have trolley lines, rail lines, HOV and other transit options, it makes it more attractive for a firm to want to locate offices in your area. There is a way to measure the economic benefits generated by putting in x miles of rail at x million dollars, and the numbers here in Dallas have been unreal, which makes it much easier from a local standpoint to sell a project. Once the trolley or rail line goes in, development will follow, and when development follows you get population growth. When you have population growth, you have tax base increases, which is a great selling point — the convention and tourism benefits, the economy benefits, small and local business benefits, and it also helps stimulate competition for projects.
Holland & Knight LLP
What are your thoughts on the GROW America plan?
It is positive that the Administration has articulated a position — funding levels it would like to see, the structure of the program and some of their goals around the authorization bill as this was not true for MAP-21. Yet, neither Congress nor the Administration have identified a permanent, sustainable funding source leaving this as an open question. The House leadership proposed to eliminate Saturday postal service, but it’s a temporary fix. It solves a short-term problem but it doesn’t provide funding beyond Spring 2015 and doesn’t do anything to address the future. Once again, it is simply kicking the can down the road and avoiding the key issue, which is identifying a long-term sustainable funding source.
There is a high probability we will come up with a solution that gets us to the end of the calendar year beyond the November elections as opposed to moving a bill that has a sustainable long-term funding source. I don’t think there is much expectation for a sustainable long-term funding source to be identified before the November elections. Don’t take that to suggest that after the election Congress will somehow find the political will to provide a six-year, sustainable funding source, but at some point in time you have to think that doing the short-term fixes will become increasingly harder to do.
What do you make of the recent progress in the Senate on a bill?
It was a bipartisan bill, which is a positive, and got everyone on board in supporting moving a bill out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. I would characterize it as probably more a placeholder than anything. The Senate is really taking the initiative and putting the ball in the court of the House of Representatives and Senate Finance Committee to try and move the discussion forward. There is frustration on the part of Senate leadership over the fact that, on the Democrat side, it is perceived as too small a bill, but there has also been no articulation yet regarding what the proper amount of the bill should be or how it should be financed. Now that House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster’s primary is over, there is hope he will now be able to turn his attention to working on a bill and that he has some ideas about the structure of the bill and level of funding. I think you will see his bill addressing policy issues that were not addressed by the House in MAP-21, because bill was not reported by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, nor adopted by the House. Therefore, I think you will see the House weigh in on a couple key points that are important to their membership.
Is there enough momentum for public transportation to continue its growth following obama’s term?
One has to believe that a Democratic president will generally be as friendly to transit as this Administration has been and that transit will continue to benefit from the attention it has been given over the last several years. A Republican administration wouldn’t be unfriendly, necessarily, but I think we will be back in a situation where we have to play a lot of defense to prevent things that could be perceived to be unfriendly or damaging to the future of the program. By having to play defense, and with a White House that is less friendly to transit, it will be a lot more difficult to maintain public transit’s current growth. The makeup of Congress will also have a huge impact both now and down the road.
Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc.
Business Group Director, Transit Engineering Group
How can consultants help eliminate the financial strain of projects on a transit agency?
It really varies from project to project. Changing site conditions, right-of-way issues and unknown utilities have predominantly been the biggest contributor to cost overruns, from a construction perspective. What we are seeing more and more, especially as transit systems expand outside of their original jurisdictions, is third-party and key stakeholders having significant impacts on the project.
The mitigation to that, beyond the Environmental Impact Statement and Preliminary Engineering, is to be aggressive early-on in the design process and setting the expectations of third parties and key stakeholders. If I could say one thing that would be the biggest impact on controlling schedule and costs, it is establishing the expectations for third parties and stakeholders. Before final design, know exactly what their jurisdictional requirements are and what they expect to get in terms of either improvements for their infrastructure or requirements on future developments that could impact the overall program. If those expectations are not defined and Interlocal Agreements not established, there is a significant risk that the project could be impacted from a cost and/or schedule perspective.
My other suggestion is identifying the true scope and intentions of the agency in where they are accepting or transferring their risk. With the implementation of alternative delivery methods, predominantly design-build, setting those expectations with the agency and how they transfer their risk is a real cost component that has to be identified early on.
When agencies are developing projects, how important has the customer’s feedback become?
The skill of developing a successful program is being able to decipher what is meaningful from the random comments from open community meetings, because you really have to weigh some of the comments versus the specific needs associated with the program. Many comments are skewed because they refer to personal needs or neighborhood requirements, and you have to balance that with the overall function of the program. That is somewhat difficult, but again, taking into account and listening to the people and summarizing their overall comments into related groups is extremely helpful in defining a program.
At this point, how is federal funding impacting projects?
There is still a huge need for federal support, but the problem is the uncertainty of the federal support, not only from being able to come up with the financial assistance but also the timing of that help. We are seeing some of our clients re-evaluate fixed rail systems and assess other types of systems such as enhanced bus, or bus rapid transit systems. In this assessment, agencies are trying to determine if these other methods can adequately serve their initial needs until outside funding sources can be petitioned and committed to the authority. We are seeing this approach looked at much more seriously than we have in the past, and I think that is a direct result of the uncertainty of Federal support.
Sr. VP/ Northeast Regional Manager, Transportation & Infrastructure Division
Are you seeing a trend toward more alternative forms of project delivery?
Yes, we are seeing that trend all over the U.S. and in Canada, where a majority of their major transit projects are going either P3, design-build or design-build-operate-maintain. Alternative forms of delivery are also on the increase in the Northeast where major transportation infrastructure projects are using alternative delivery methods, including the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, Longfellow Bridge in Boston and P3 Rapid Bridge Program in Pennsylvania. We are also seeing smaller projects, in the $20 to $50 million range, in the state of New York, coming out design-build, and I think this trend will continue.
Why are these types of project delivery taking hold so slowly here in the U.S.?
Overall, they are becoming more common. There have been many design-build projects here in the U.S. for highways and bridges and increasingly so for transit. Design-build for major transit projects is widely utilized, but less so for the P3 approach, with the best example being the Eagle P3 Project in Denver. It all comes down to funding, and transit projects suffer from a lack of it as compared to highway funding. There are only so many dollars to go around for major transit projects. With a P3 approach, the financing is being brought to the table, but it’s not found money, you still have to pay for it over time. A steady and dedicated source of funds is needed to make the payments in the years that follow, including resources needed to operate and maintain the system.
Do you expect these types of deliveries continuing to grow?
I don’t think there is much choice, we have aging infrastructure with critical needs and must look at all of these delivery methods, especially P3, to finance them over the long haul and stretch our limited financial resources. Given the state of our transportation infrastructure in this country and the lack of readily available funding, I believe we will see an increased use of alternative delivery methods over the next several decades.
What is the industry’s biggest challenge right now?
We have seen an upturn in the market nationwide and in the Northeast, due to the impacts of Hurricane Sandy, where design and construction projects have increased significantly. I think the biggest challenge for the engineering community, contractors and public agencies will be finding the manpower resources necessary to move these projects forward. The other challenge will be implementation and follow through to complete the numerous resiliency projects underway, so that we are fully prepared for the next catastrophic event.
Thomas J. Spearing III
Hill International Inc.
President, Project Management Group, Americas
Can you discuss some of the factors in the resurgence of streetcars?
Streetcars, a transportation staple in hundreds of American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were largely abandoned by the 1950s, as car and bus travel became more popular. Today, many cities are taking a second look at streetcars, for many reasons. First, we are seeing a landmark cultural shift, in both the U.S. and Canada. Many cities are experiencing surges in their populations, as residents seeking convenience and easy commuting begin moving back to urban areas from the suburbs. They have found the pluses of living in a suburban setting are outweighed by increasingly longer and more expensive commutes, and are looking for homes where nearly every convenience is within walking distance.
Second, streetcars are a ‘greener’ alternative to cars and buses. As gas prices and the sheer number of vehicles on our roadways continue to increase, and as our simultaneous concern about our carbon footprint continues to rise, cities are looking for innovative ways to get commuters out of their vehicles.
Third, while streetcars aren’t expected to completely replace buses and other faster, more widespread modes of transportation, they are a perfect alternative for moving people efficiently in distinct areas of a city — whether those people are commuting, shopping or sightseeing. Streetcars add more capacity than buses and are, frankly, more attractive. Also, streetcar lines in cities such as Portland, Ore., have been a tremendous boon to local business and tourism, providing transportation that is safe, accessible and affordable.
Finally, there is an improved receptivity to light rail and streetcars at the federal level, and the federal government is allocating an unprecedented amount of funding for these types of projects. Projects that had been in the planning stages for years can now move ahead, thanks to a new federal commitment to funding alternative modes of transportation that reduce both carbon emissions and our long-standing reliance on foreign oil. All of these factors are converging right now, making it an ideal time to re-introduce light rail, and the joy of streetcars, to whole new generation.
How do you feel the changes to NEPA and New Starts are impacting projects?
Overall, the short answer is that NEPA and New Starts are having — and will continue to have — a very positive impact on transportation projects, especially those that use innovation to limit their impact on the environment.
Rail projects, in particular — those that get people out of their cars — are getting a tremendous boost from NEPA’s emphasis on environmental sensitivity and MAP-21’s New Starts, which makes fast-tracking and funding crucial transportation projects easier than ever. After more than two decades as a transportation advocate, there has never been a better time to plan, design and build transportation projects, regardless of mode.
Put simply, both sets of changes are designed to streamline project development and approval. As a result, I am optimistic enhancements to the NEPA and New Starts processes will lead to an increase in the number of transportation projects, which is good for the U.S. construction and manufacturing industries from an economic stand-point, and good for our communities as well, as we find new effective ways to reduce our carbon footprint.
With sustainable practices growing on a larger scale, how have agencies approached projects with you differently?
Certainly, transit agencies across the country have taken the lead in building LEED-certified buildings and re-designing existing maintenance and operating practices to maximize precious resources and push the consumption of clean energy. From our perspective, our transit-industry clients, rightly so, expect us to not only understand the constantly evolving standards for environmental sustainability, but to have the depth of professional experience and the infrastructure and technology to put those standards to work — not next year or next month, but now. So, we have got to spend as much time and effort staying ahead of the sustainability curve as we are on the projects themselves. Our clients’ projects are likewise evolving quickly, incorporating ever-changing innovations to achieve greater heights of sustainability.
Five years ago, sustainable elements, such as motion sensors to conserve power and water, daylighting, passive solar, storm water management, and whole-site waste reduction, were just beginning to get widespread attention. Now, those kinds of things are mandated in every public project. And, I expect that those mandates will continue, and even increase, as we continue to look for new ways to protect and preserve our environment. As the project manager, as the client’s representative, we are expected to fully understand the importance of those innovations while also fully understanding their impact on the projects themselves. We need to make sure the project team meets an increasingly higher sustainability bar without impeding already constrained schedules and budgets. It is a challenging, yet exciting time for the construction industry, and for construction management firms like Hill. It truly feels as if we are on the front lines. We are helping clients implement these incredible innovations almost as soon as they are becoming available.