METRO spoke with several consultants to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on the industry, how they are helping transit through this difficult time, and more in the June issue. We are running the unedited versions in multiple parts here online. This is part one.
Market Leader, Transit and Rail
How has COVID-19 impacted WSP… were you able to pick up lessons learned from any of your international offices ahead of time?
Yes. WSP’s matrix organization promotes a market-based approach that is made up of a national and international network of professionals. We were able to collect an inventory of responses from other WSP regions around the world for the purpose of sharing lessons learned with our U.S. transit agency clients. Some examples are contact tracing applications, anti-viral materials like copper for high-touch surfaces such as handrails and water bottle filling stations, infrared/thermal cameras and helmets to screen for feverish passengers, UV and chemical disinfection robots, and medical conversion of railcars to transport seriously ill passengers.
What do you feel will be the long-term impact of the pandemic on the public transit industry?
The current collaboration between transit agencies and the CDC, academia, and their local public health departments will be beneficial long after the COVID-19 crisis is over. We are learning new ways to protect the public from medical professionals. Future designs will include cashless systems for collecting fares for less contact points; criteria to retrofit vehicles, stations, and employee facilities to promote social distancing; and ventilation systems that provide more frequent fresh air changes. These new ways to limit virus transmission will increase resiliency in the face of future public health crises.
As far as project delivery or planning transportation, what are some global trends you see taking hold in North America in the future?
Transportation planning and project delivery must be adaptable to changing times. We see a trend towards better anticipating and preparing for fundamental changes in how communities live, work, and travel. The positive impacts on the environment due to this crisis are undeniable as people use fewer automobiles and planes. The public is understanding the role transit and mobility play in the health of their towns and cities. This is driving a conversation around the need to define the future role of transit in the post-COVID-19 world.
Do you feel this period will help generate more technological innovation?
If there is a silver lining in this epidemic, it is the innovation that developed around mitigating risk and improving safety. When we developed ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic: Public Transportation Responds: Safeguarding Riders and Employees’ guide, in collaboration with APTA and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, our research recognized many of the new technologies being tested. Innovation technologies are being developed such as advanced cleaning systems.
With workforce development being such a huge aspect of the industry, how do you feel these new work norms, like work from home, will impact a company’s ability to continue the professional growth of its employees?
Having two children in college who are now remote learning, I can attest that the answer is clear — we need to learn from the educational industry. They transformed content and delivered it online through virtual classes. While this does not completely replace hands-on learning, it does give us a major head start. Transit agencies and consultants, some of who in the past may have regarded the investment of resources into remote work as too costly, should focus on improving this method of learning and expand our virtual work infrastructures.
What is important to include in future federal economic recovery packages?
We encourage major federal investments in transit to fund critical projects that will repair, maintain, and improve public transit and passenger rail systems today and in the future. The road to recovery must address funding and finance resiliency planning to account for changing transit agencies costs and revenues. The importance of investment in American transit systems will significantly strengthen our communities and increase economic growth.
Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim
National Transit and Rail Market Sector Leader
Prior to the pandemic, what was your company’s biggest challenge? What is it now amid a pandemic, and how are you dealing with it?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, HNTB’s biggest challenge was recruiting professionals. Serving our transportation clients’ various needs requires a range of talent. As programs become more complex, having those skilled professionals is critical.
HNTB consistently works closely with clients to understand their evolving needs and offers recommendations on how we can help. For example, we have been helping our clients with the intricacy of the CARES Act and helping agencies determine what they need to do to obtain grants where needed.
How will the idea of mobility help inform agencies’ decisions as we start to come out of the pandemic?
I believe this gives us an opportunity to approach our transit clients with new ideas around contactless mobility. The incoming technologies of micromobility might help solve the first-mile, last-mile issues, and alternatives that commuters are looking at. Now may be an opportune time for agencies to reimagine their transit networks as mobility networks with integrated corridors and new partners. Uber, Lyft, bike-share programs, and scooters could be part of the mobility discussion. For example, there are pilot programs around the country that involve for-hire vehicles. There are ways to bundle these different modes into a monthly pass that would connect customers to the transit system and back to their front doors.
As far as project delivery, what do you feel will be some trends in the short- and long-term?
In the very near-term, I see transit agencies choosing to accelerate critical projects because they have the wherewithal to do so without inconveniencing their customers.
In the near- and longer term, transit agencies are seeking smarter, more efficient ways to advance their capital programs. We could see agencies approaching their capital programs in a holistic way and packaging their projects to take advantage of value engineering and alternate project delivery methods, such as design-build and alternate creative financing opportunities.
How does CARES Act funding impact HNTB, if at all?
The original $25 billion CARES Act was intended as a relief package to help transit agencies shore up their operating budgets. Having the additional funding means agencies will not have to divert capital resources to address those shortfalls. From HNTB’s perspective, the CARES Act was the first step, if you will, to what this country needs from a stimulus funding package. Everyone acknowledges the need to have a robust transit and transportation network. It is the economic backbone of this country — and of the economic recovery that will be necessary in a post-pandemic world. We also support our clients, who have been asking for more stimulus funding from Washington. Mass transit users take billions of trips annually. They need federal funding.
Do you think the Administration’s acknowledgement of how important transit is will bode well moving forward with authorization?
The transportation community would like to see the Administration pass transportation reauthorization that fully supports transit. We are hoping the federal funding reauthorization discussion carries momentum, particularly in light of the crisis we are all living through right now.
Transit and transportation are a vital part of the economic recovery in the United States. Transit ridership reflects the economic conditions of the country. Transit provides the mobility needed for people to get to work.
Additional thoughts about how transit agencies can reassure customers?
Safety remains a top priority for transit agencies. Recently, agencies have been taking extreme cleaning and disinfecting measures to ensure safe operations. For instance in New York, the MTA, which carries about 40% of the public transit users in the country, has implemented the first full closure of the NY subway system in its 116-year history. The unprecedented shutdown between 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. gives employees time to implement extreme cleaning and disinfecting protocols throughout the subway system.
Transit and Rail Lead
Initially, how did the pandemic impact Stantec? Did your worldwide reach help you begin to plan before it hit North America?
When it became apparent that COVID-19 was going to reach pandemic levels, we were able to arrange for almost 19,000 out of our 22,000 employees to work remotely and support client communities around the world. One reason we were able to respond so quickly was because we had invested in giving our people flexibility, as well as the technology necessary for work/life balance. So we had the base structure to make it happen, though it was still an amazing feat by our IT department.
Another main reason is that we created a pandemic response committee about 10 years ago, which was set up to lead our response from the highest levels. Emergency response teams were quickly mobilized to put plans into place. Having that sort of plan and foresight is typic for Stantec, as we are used to dealing in crisis situations such as hurricanes and floods.
Personally, I was working in China during the SARS outbreak, and was aware of what a lockdown policy could look like. I am still in contact with some former colleagues there, so I had a sense of what might be coming.
Is the pandemic impacting any of your projects in North America?
We have been able to keep our projects moving by quickly shifting to a remote workforce. A lot of our design work can be done remotely, and we have worked with our clients to make arrangements that work with each specific project.
Our project team for the Long Island Rail Road has been extremely busy, for example. In some ways this pandemic has forced us to think differently about processes and led to some efficiencies. Though we are not in the field office together these days, our team communicates with our project partners on Microsoft Teams, Bluejeans, and Skype.
In Bellevue, Wash., we are on track to meet our original timeline for design on an operations and maintenance facility for Sound Transit. Our project team will say we lost a bit of efficiency by shifting to remote work and not being in the same office together, but we have been flexible in our approach and we are on schedule to complete the project this year.
In our experience, there are a few contractors have stopped or reduced work activity, but most are continuing where they can.
Going forward, how do you feel the design and delivery of projects may change?
In our world — the development and design of projects — a lot of companies are using modern technologies to remotely access data, as well as using CAD, 3D, BIM, and virtual reality platforms. We have invested in these technologies to allow our teams to access, share, and use information real-time to build a design without all being in the same meeting room. This has been critical on large-scale projects where we have brought in experts from across the continent, such as the Red and Purple Modernization project in Chicago.
While this is now common across the industry, if COVID-19 had hit 15 years ago most companies would not have been able to operate as effectively as today. Those who have been able to invest in new technologies are faring better than those who did not. Though I suspect that soon, it will not just be the larger firms that are investing in these technologies — the IT providers have developed scalable and affordable solutions for medium and smaller firms as well.
And while we will be set up to work remotely, there will still be the need for face-to-face interaction to balance things out. There is no substitute for personal interaction to build trust and relationships with a business partner.
What is your outlook for the future of public transportation?
While few jurisdictions are saying they are delaying capital projects, everyone is trying to understand what the impact of the pandemic will be. With the massive reduction in ridership, there is reduced cash flow within agencies, which has caused a huge challenge to stay operational. Agencies are seeking emergency funds, but what will funding look like in the future? How can we include transit in plans to reinvigorate the economy?
While this is an enormous challenge, there are not transit solutions that can be built rapidly — our cities have taken years to plan, design, and build mass transit solutions as an integral part of their vibrancy. Things may look a little different if social distancing remains a priority in some form, but there is a future for transit and helping people move more easily within their cities.
If a return to offices in major centers like New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong, occurs, they cannot have most citizens moving around in cars, grid lock will transpire as the infrastructure cannot support this. Safe, shared transportation solutions are a necessity. To have ridership return, passengers need to feel safe. This means increased attention to the passenger experience, managing the flow of people, and ensuring that we are listening and responding to customer input.
The way we have been designing our cities for more than 100 years. It is not going to completely change overnight, but we can start to reshape things to reflect the new expectations from citizens and government and continue to make our communities a better place to be.