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.
Moving forward, do you feel this infusion of funding is a sign that Congress understands public transit’s importance?
Transit agencies and their employees provide daily vital services to communities and the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates how important those services are to the workforce and essential employees. In several communities, transit agencies and their employees bore a heavy price in terms of death and sickness from COVID-19. The funding provided by Congress demonstrates the importance of transit service to the vitality and functioning of many communities. I am hopeful that the demonstrated importance of transit service will lead to additional funding in FY 21. For the reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, it is critical that a sustainable source of funding is identified as Congress remains reluctant to raise the gasoline tax or identify an alternative sustainablerevenue source.
On the flip side, there has been speculation that the CARES Act funds may be an advance payment in lieu of more funding to come. Do you have any thoughts on how that may play out?
I have not heard that Congress sees the CARES Act funds as a down payment on FY 21 funding. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are still intent on finishing mark-up on all 12 appropriations bills before September 30, 2020. They will have to do so under very tight budget conditions as the budget caps for domestic programs are scheduled to rise only $5 billion from the FY 20 funding levels. This will place significant fiscal pressure on surface transportation programs funded through the General Fund, such as the Capital Investment Grants and Better Utilizing Infrastructure to Leverage Development (BUILD), which will have to complete with other federal domestic programs funded out of the General Fund.
There seemed to be good momentum on an authorization bill prior to the pandemic, do you feel that head of steam can or will be picked up, or will it be a job for the next Congress?
When Congress reconvenes in mid-May, there will only be slightly more than four months to complete a long-term surface transportation bill. While hearings have been held, no mark-ups have been scheduled. There is great interest by the President, the House leadership, and some members of the Senate to incorporate surface transportation authorization in an economic stimulus bill. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has, so far, evidenced no interest in bringing a surface transportation bill to the Senate floor or voting on a tax increase to help pay for the bill. As long as he maintains this posture, Congress will be forced to act on a short-term extension that will likely result in no action taken until after the November 2020 elections.
VP/North America Business Development Director, Transportation & Infrastructure Division
How have STV’s projects been impacted by COVID-19, if at all?
We have had projects affected in places hard hit by the pandemic, particularly in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. Having said that, most of our staff are effectively working remotely in close collaboration with our clients. Fortunately, with our diverse portfolio and strategic investments in our internal IT infrastructure, we were able to support our clients during these unprecedented times. From secured networks and cloud-based tools to virtual platforms and basic equipment, such as laptops and mobile phones, we have been providing our engineers the necessary tools for years, and our staff already had the ability to connect remotely to facilitate work-sharing and collaboration across our 40-plus offices in the U.S. and Canada.
In many places we are providing construction support services, including construction engineering inspection and program/construction management, where most projects have qualified as essential. Our field staff have seen a few disruptions, but for the most part the work has continued. In those cases, we are working very closely with our clients, following all applicable guidelines to ensure the safety of our staff.
What has been the company’s biggest challenge during this pandemic?
Like many other professional businesses during these unprecedented times, our biggest challenge has been the inability to predict the outcome of this pandemic and its impact on our operations going forward. As noted previously, in many ways we have been ready for this type of challenge as our cloud-based tools, cyber security tools, and virtual tools allowing for remote interaction have been in place for some time and represent a significant investment of our business. We have risen to the challenge and are confident that, given the circumstances, we are providing our clients with a high level of service. We are committed to working with each and every single one of our clients to advance our projects and meet our deadlines because it is in the best interest of communities across the country and our economy.
How has the pandemic impacted Canada and how does that compare to the impact here in the states?
Like many other countries around the world, Canada has been impacted by the pandemic, but it seems like the effect has been far greater on our side of the border. When you have a gateway to the world like New Yok City and the fifth largest economy in the world in California, the impact is likely to be more significant. Our projects in Canada have continued moving forward during the COVID-19 crisis. We have had some disruptions as expected, and much like the U.S., Canada seems to be in the emergency phase of the pandemic at this time. Transit agencies across Canada are also seeing record low declines in ridership, as people have been confined to their homes for the past couple of months. Furthermore, they are also seeing an increase in costs primarily due to disinfecting rolling stock and the need to keep operators safe. Like APTA in the U.S., the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) in Canada has urged the Canadian federal government to support public transit agencies during the COVID-19 crisis, but I’m not aware of any legislation providing financial relief to transit providers as of today.
Looking at funding moving forward, do you feel the CARES Act funding is a positive sign moving forward toward authorization?
Passing of the CARES Act was essential, and we are glad that Congress on both sides of the aisle and the Trump Administration approved it. However, the next essential step is sufficient funding for transportation, especially mass transit, in the cities and states that rely on it.
Transit agencies across the country are all facing tough challenges including record-low ridership levels and yet these services are the very same services that many healthcare workers and first responders are using in some of the hardest hit areas. I think this is a step in the right direction and am hopeful that everyone realizes that now is the time to act and put on the table a sustainable infrastructure package. As we look to rebuild the economy in the next few months, infrastructure will play a key role in providing sustainable and high-paying jobs to Americans. That is important as none of us can predict what the recovery will look like post COVID-19, but we know that business as usual is not the answer. If we recall 9/11, one of the worst days in our history, and the ARRA program in response to the 2008 financial crisis, we saw many regulations temporarily lifted to allow New York City and the nation to rebuild the economy. The CARES Act approved by Congress is almost three times the size of ARRA and reflects the severity of the current crisis. We need to take bold steps toward rebuilding our economy.
How do you feel consultants and the industry move forward after COVID-19?
Our business is about people and relationships. COVID-19 has reminded us that people and relationships as well as creativity are fundamental to our day-to-day activities. Therefore, on our end, we will continue being strategic about our investments and never stop providing our clients with a high level of service, as we believe that is the best way to foster our relationships. As an industry, we need to keep challenging ourselves with the best models to deliver projects effectively and must never stop creating value for our clients. During turbulent times, clients look for nimbleness and clarity and our industry’s ability to provide this has been in the spotlight during this crisis. We look forward to working with our clients during the post COVID-19 era to creatively address their needs and come up with new and collaborative ways of planning, designing, and building our transportation infrastructure.