METRO spoke to Tom Waldron, global transit director for HDR, and Sally Librera, Americas Transit Market Leader/Sr. VP at AECOM, about some of 2022’s highlights, how the influx of funds will impact the consultant industry and public transit, and what may be in store for 2023.
What were some highlights for public transportation this year and how do they set the stage for 2023?
Tom Waldron: Transit agencies spent much of 2022 re-engaging with customers to reassert their value proposition and bring back ridership. Transit operators focused on service basics, such as dependability, safety, and customer service, while some agencies piloted fare discount programs and new innovations, like congestion pricing, to pay for them. Funding evolved in 2022 as COVID-19 operating relief wound down and the first year of the IIJA kicked in, generating unprecedented demand for FTA CIG funding. Seeking faster and more cost-effective project delivery, major transit agencies continued to explore alternative delivery models for equitably focused mobility initiatives. While riders continued to return in 2022, they asked for more options, flexibility, and an assurance of safety, which will compel agencies to continuously evaluate the service they provide.
Sally Librera: There was no playbook for 2022. Never before have we seen such an incredible convergence of events — ongoing pandemic recovery, inflation, workforce shortages, and unprecedented investment in public transit infrastructure and mobility. It’s tough to pick just a few highlights among so many significant events and forces, but here are some top ones in my book: 1) we were reminded of why we dream big with infrastructure when signature projects like TfL’s Elizabeth Line and SFMTA’s Central Subway opened to the public this year, dramatically enhancing mobility and opportunity for riders and communities. Both are architectural and engineering marvels and sit squarely beneath some of the densest urban landscapes in the world — beautiful examples of what the great minds of our industry can do, and the unbelievable impact transit infrastructure can have on our lives and communities. 2) Congress appropriated an unprecedented level of funding for infrastructure projects that prioritize mobility improvements for underserved communities, fight climate change, and support thriving, vibrant communities. 3) As we emerge from the pandemic, we hear more transit leaders and key stakeholders equating public transit to a utility — one that is essential to communities and economies, similar to utilities like power and water. This is a critical framing for the future of transit industry as agencies face operating deficits with pandemic ridership losses, and we all work toward solutions on the best way to fill those gaps.
Specific to funding, how will the influx of funds impact the consultant industry, and public transit as a whole?
Librera: We are incredibly fortunate to be transit professionals who are leading, influencing, and shaping projects during this period of unprecedented investment in infrastructure and mobility. This comes with huge responsibility — to deliver benefit commensurate with the investment, spend dollars efficiently, and to collaborate as an industry in ways that haven’t been required in the past. The workforce across the industry is already stretched, and the infusion of more dollars and big projects will place an even greater strain on the entire sector. I’m confident we will collaborate, partner, and grow in new ways to meet these goals, like new partnerships with small businesses, schools, and peer firms. This industry-wide challenge will also push on innovation, and we’ll see further development of digital solutions that drive efficiency and cost savings, like AECOM’s digital tools that speed design, calculate carbon emissions during design in real time, enhance community collaboration, and expedite timeframes for regulatory reviews. And, we will need to be creative and agile in supporting agencies in new ways as they continue to recover from the pandemic, rebuild ridership, provide safe and reliable service every day, and deliver on these once in a lifetime opportunities.
Waldron: With the increase in capital funding comes the challenge of getting it all programmed. A staffing shortage at all levels of public transit continues, and the consultant industry will be needed to help agencies reach their project goals, whether through navigating the grant process or implementing programs. Understanding the complex economics of the construction industry will also be key as projects deal with ongoing material shortages and hyper-inflationary forces that are driving the cost of capital projects higher even as new funding options arrive. New investments in transit will improve the environment and our communities but will require a corresponding influx of workers. There’s no better time for workforce development initiatives that provide STEM educations to younger generations and encourage careers in transportation.
What does 2023 hold for public transit What should we be on the lookout for and how might it/they change the industry?
Waldron: In 2023, many agencies will continue to restructure or right-size their service through network redesigns and a focus on customer experience. Much of the transit industry will be focused on strengthening their essential services and cementing their value to communities. This will change the lens through which agencies evaluate new investments and expenditures. With aging infrastructure, many agencies are pursuing capital projects focused on state of good repair. On our seaboards, communities are addressing coastal vulnerabilities for transit systems impacted by the effects of climate change. Looking forward, zero emissions technologies will continue to be a hot topic, with many agencies exploring the potential of both hydrogen fuel cell and electric propulsion. And BRT is becoming more popular, having proven itself as more affordable and just as reliable as rail. The result is likely to be a proportional shift in capital spending from rail-focused to BRT-focused mobility options.
Librera: 2023 will be an exciting year for transit, as transit ridership continues to grow post pandemic and create new travel patterns. We’ll see significant advancement in zero emissions and key steps forward on transformative projects like Gateway Hudson River Tunnels, California High Speed Rail, Houston University Corridor BRT, and VTA’s BART extension to San Jose. One thing to watch is how Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) becomes more front and center in transit projects and priorities — transit is a perfect opportunity to enhance opportunity, mobility, equity, and sustainability through strong governance, policy, design, and execution. I am proud of AECOM’s focus and commitment to ESG through our Sustainable Legacies strategy, including our ScopeX approach to embed 50% carbon reduction in all major projects, as well as our own carbon net zero goals.