Alva Carrasco, director of the Los Angeles Region at Burns Engineering, discussed several topics with METRO, including equity and post-pandemic challenges.
Transit Equity, Post-Pandemic Challenges, and Ridership
Dig into this Q&A to learn more about how transit agencies are viewing transportation equity, how Burn Engineering is navigating challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, and ways to improve ridership.
METRO: How are consultants helping transit agencies, if at all, with the idea of transit equity and inclusion?
Carrasco: Many disadvantaged communities remain underserved. Communities are relying on transit facilities and amenities that have suffered from years of underinvestment or no investment at all. Fortunately, our transit clients face a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
We can improve mobility, environmental justice, and social equity with infrastructure investments that directly impact disadvantaged communities. This is especially true given President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which promises to direct 40 percent of federal investments to communities that are marginalized, underserved, and suffer disproportionately from pollution.
At Burns, we take, very seriously, our responsibility to support clients in implementing their transformational projects. Acting as a consulting partner, it is our role to deliver future-ready facility upgrades and infrastructure improvements. Looking ahead, we can make tremendous progress in expanding transit’s benefits — especially to our region’s most vulnerable communities.
METRO: How has the pandemic impacted your workforce and what are you doing to address those issues, if any?
Carrasco: As a result of the pandemic, Burns has instituted a hybrid working environment, providing a level of flexibility while still maintaining a culture of collaboration and camaraderie. Our employees and our clients appreciate the hybrid system. On a personal level, I feel a lot more motivated when I know I am going to the office to meet with my team.
Burns is growing at an incredible rate. We’re on pace to expand staff by 30% this year. Competing for engineering talent remains a challenge, especially during a nationwide workforce shortage. Fortunately, our mission-critical clients entrust us to deliver specialized, state-of-the-art projects. The opportunity to be part of that work draws the best of the best.
METRO: In the past, transit’s biggest issue has been funding. With the funds now coming in via IIJA and other programs, what must the industry do to capitalize on that infusion of money?
Carrasco: We’re fortunate to be experiencing the largest infusion of federal funding for public transportation in the country’s history. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry.
However, for many agencies, there simply isn’t enough in-house capacity to manage this influx of capital funds.
Project managers have become hard to come by, and they are hard to retain — both in the public and private sectors. I’m seeing a lot more interest in owner’s representative and program management oversight (PMO) services. Due to a lack of in-house resources, more agencies will look to add capacity by partnering with management consultants.
METRO: What will some keys be to transit being able to bring back ridership post-pandemic?
Carrasco: The pandemic shutdown upended everything we knew about transit. While many professional service workers were able to stay home, we witnessed frontline and essential workers continue to rely on public transit.
Three years later, some sectors are still struggling to get their workers to come back to work in the office. As an industry, we need to look at making transit systems work for those who rely on it the most.
Needless to say, there isn’t a silver bullet. We can start by focusing on improvements in system safety and security. That includes neighborhood-level enhancements, focusing on areas that surround bus stops or train stations.
Service schedules should consider customers whose shifts fall outside peak service hours and increase the frequency of service on lifeline routes. We should look for ways to provide greater bus stop amenities, such as shading, lighting, and seating — especially in disadvantaged communities.
Given the impact of inflation on commuters’ wallets, now may be the time for agencies to evaluate whether free fare programs are feasible. Some agencies are offering these programs for students, which can attract a new generation of riders.
METRO: What are the main hurdles for agencies in areas like California and New York in meeting the electric bus mandates? Is it feasible to believe they can overcome these issues to meet the mandates put into place?
Carrasco: Currently, the biggest barrier is the lack of funds for zero-emission buses (ZEB) and related infrastructure improvements.
California will need billions of dollars to fully transition public transit off fossil fuels to meet the California Air Resources Board (CARB) 2040 mandate. Even though the state and federal government are allocating unprecedented amounts of funds, it will still not be enough to cover all associated costs.
ZEB battery range remains a significant barrier as well. Although battery performance continues to improve year by year, manufacturers’ range estimates still do not necessarily reflect on-the-ground conditions.
Topography, weather, and route operations must all be considered. Battery-electric technology may not be mature enough to satisfy every system’s demands.
As battery and charging technology continue to improve, we can reasonably expect to see a greater range, declining costs, and advancements in reliability.
Eventually, I believe ZEBs will reach parity with conventional internal combustion engines. Getting there will require significant investment and carefully thought-out planning.