Caroline Decker, Sr. VP, Federal Government Affairs & National Rail Business Director at WSP USA, discussed ways consultants can help transit agencies successfully receive federal grant funding for their projects, high-speed rail, and more with METRO.
Funding, Workforce, HSR, and More
Dig into this Q&A to learn more about the increase in federal funding, what the future of funding may looks like, and more.
METRO: What are the biggest lessons you think that public transit learned from the pandemic? How can consultants help them implement some of the lessons learned?
Decker: There are many lessons learned from the pandemic, and many lessons still unfolding, but one of the biggest takeaways is the importance of agility. This not only applies to public transit and transportation, but almost every sector and almost every field had to re-engineer, rethink, redesign, and devise new strategies to adapt to the changing world. And we had to do it multiple times.
Now as the dust is finally settling, we are in a new world with new rules of engagement. Transportation behaviors, work, and commuting patterns have changed, and the lasting lesson is that we must prepare for any possibility — expect the unexpected.
In the transit world, operators responded quickly and adeptly, and sometimes through trial and error, learned what would and wouldn’t work.
The need for a strong focus on equity became even clearer during the pandemic, which provided transit agencies with deeper insights into the vital role transit plays in providing access to employment, opportunity, and healthcare for our most vulnerable.
It also illuminated how past decisions about where and how to build infrastructure often disproportionally benefited some while disenfranchising others, and our decision must be about more than helping people reach a destination.
It’s about choices and access to jobs, education, training, healthcare, childcare, food, culture, and recreation — the very foundations of a society that must work for all of us.
WSP established the Equity Center of Excellence to help our clients create places, infrastructure, and experiences that improve quality of life for historically underserved, marginalized, and disinvested communities.
We’re helping transit clients throughout the country pilot policies and projects that protect and enhance equity. We are developing tools that help communities and decision makers understand how they can make responsible choices and move toward more equitable outcomes and prevent repeating past mistakes.
Consultants are serving an important role, working with transit providers to develop solutions that provide greater mobility and reconnect communities, while also protecting the cultural essence of our cities and communities and stimulate long term growth and opportunities for all people and businesses.
We can apply lessons learned across a broad spectrum of clients and partners that will advance winning strategies for customers and operators. In this digital, virtual, artificial intelligence-driven world, information and data are the name of the game.
At WSP we are tapping into data to find new and innovative ways to translate that information into solutions we could not have possibly envisioned even just a few years ago. This trend will grow exponentially as our tools become more sophisticated.
METRO: With increased funding now available for transit projects and capital projects, does that put increased pressure on consultant firms, or is it more a good thing that there’s some financial surety for these projects?
Decker: The record levels of federal funding for transit and intercity passenger rail made available under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) present an awesome opportunity for capital investments in transit and rail programs across the country, in communities large and small, rural and urban.
Rebuilding and modernizing systems, replacing aging fleet and equipment, refurbishing stations while addressing accessibility needs — the inventory of work is monumental.
Equity is a key component in most of the funding opportunities covered in the BIL, so approaching project planning, design, and delivery with an equity lens is not only the right thing to do but is critical for taking any project to the next stage.
This kind of pressure is a privilege because we know the needs are vast and now all of us in this space must come together to deliver positive results. Given the ridership setbacks brought on by COVID, now is the time to make these desperately needed investments to focus on safety, modernization, and decarbonization — all while improving the customer experience.
The advanced appropriations provided over five years by BIL provides a level of certainty that has been lacking. Although these funds are disbursed through competitive grants, when it comes to intercity passenger rail, there is not a federal formula program in place that is truly needed to provide ongoing certainty. This is a matter that must be addressed in the next transportation reauthorization bill.
METRO: Talk a bit about high-speed rail versus intercity passenger rail and various implications in the U.S.
Decker: For many years, funding and support for passenger rail depended primarily on the level of appropriations received by Amtrak.
From its inception, Amtrak reauthorizations were separate from those of the larger Surface Transportation Authorization Act and as a result derived no benefit from dedicated sources of funding.
With the passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act and the subsequent Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, rail became part of the Surface Transportation Act and programs were created and funded, and investments were made to expand rail service.
Bringing rail into the Surface Transportation Act was a fundamental shift in how policy makers viewed rail and laid the foundation for the opportunities now provided by the Biden Administration’s infrastructure funding program.
As a result, our nation is finally on the cusp of a new era of rail passenger service. The amount of money available is unprecedented.
With one fell swoop, BIL provided more money for passenger rail than was provided over the past 50 years combined. It sets the stage for a new era of modern intercity rail passenger service. New corridors will be identified, trip time improvements will be made, and new services will be launched.
It is important to remember that so much of this potential investment will be integrated with our nation’s freight system since only a small percentage of passenger rail is publicly owned.
The U.S. rail network is nearly 140,000 miles of track. Outside of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, passenger trains operate on a 21,000-mile system owned and operated by the nation’s freight carriers.
Freight rail accounts for around 40% of long-distance freight ton-miles, more than any other mode of transportation, and hauls one-third of the country’s exports. They are critical to our supply chain and economy, so we need to build better partnerships that create win-win opportunities for freight and passenger rail.
While it is possible to increase speeds on some of these alignments, the freight lines were never designed for high speed. There are some services operating over freight lines that achieve speeds of 90 or 110 mph but they exist in only a few areas and the time and cost to get operating speeds over the standard 79 mph can be daunting.
There is no doubt that trains operating at very high speeds, like those on the Northeast Corridor, are exciting, but successful services usually rely on two important factors: frequency and reliability.
The challenge going forward is to identify and invest in those corridors where expanding the number of frequencies, reducing trip time, enhancing reliability, and improving the customer’s experience is most achievable.
This is how a successful service is built and could create some early wins. The momentum created by these early successes will give policymakers reasons to continue funding these programs and push the envelope even further out.
There will be opportunities for new high-speed services, but each of those will be built upon the steady incremental improvements we make now.
METRO: With the funding now in place for the next couple of years, how can the industry best make the case for that funding to increase or at least hold steady in the future?
Decker: As mentioned above, for decades, rail advocates pleaded for dedicated funding for rail passenger service. When the BIL was signed into law in November 2021 by President Biden, it ushered in a new era of investment in our nation’s intermodal transportation system. Freight and passenger rail will all benefit making our nation’s rail network safer and more reliable.
So, the gauntlet has been laid down and it is time to deliver the results. Policymakers reward successful work. To keep a consistent stream of funding flowing, all parties must now work together to bring projects and other investments across the finish line. This means that the rail industry must collaborate with federal and state policymakers if we are to be successful.
The reauthorization of this legislation in 2026 is just around the corner. While there will be some early successes, many of the big projects will take five to 10 years to complete and so progress — and this means sticking to schedule and budgets — must be demonstrated every step of the way.
Currently underway is the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA’s) solicitation for applications for new corridors. The successful applicants for the Corridor Identification Program will be announced in late summer/early fall and will begin to build a pipeline of projects to expand service in many of the 22 state-supported corridor services already in place in 19 states.
With nearly 70 expressions of interest, there will be applications for many brand-new corridors, increasing the number of states sponsoring corridor services.
The funding and the programs offered by the federal government are a big factor in improving and building new services, but the other critical element is creating strong local support for this work.
Behind every successful and established corridor (such as the Heartland Flyer or the Downeaster) was a dedicated, persistent, and passionate group of local advocates. They flooded the local congressional town halls, they traveled to their state capitols, they got on TV, and they made the case.
They stayed the course, and their voices were too loud to ignore. It paid off. Fortunately, there are many playbooks for others to borrow or emulate. Once the FRA releases its selections, the race will be on. So, now is the time to engage and organize at the local level.
We must turn our excitement and anticipation into results.
METRO: Can you discuss the importance of both membership and partnerships with local and national associations, like APTA, WTS, COMTO, etc.?
Decker: Relationships are central to every winning project, partnership, and delivering successful results. Membership in local and national associations fosters better relationships and sharing of best practices, lessons learned, and so much more. During this era of record investment, these partnerships and relationships will be the difference between success and failure.
Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), and Latinos in Transit (LIT) are leading discussions around diversity, equity, and inclusion, helping to shape policy and supporting the careers of the next generation of diverse talent working in transportation.
American Public Transportation Association, American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association, American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), and other professional organizations provide technical expertise, professional development, and training that is essential for maintaining a strong workforce.
WSP supports these and many other organizations. We encourage active participation in associations and taking advantage of programs, mentorship, education, and volunteer opportunities.
All of these organizations offer opportunities to share best practices and learn from colleagues across transportation sectors.
It’s often through associations that emerging professionals have an opportunity to interact with seasoned leaders and where corporations and agencies can collaborate on research and share new approaches to industry challenges.
WSP is at a significant point in its history, with three of our female executives currently serving in top leadership positions for national and international industry organizations Jannet Walker-Ford, our national transit and rail market leader and senior vice president, serves as WTS International board chair and WTS Foundation chair.
Tanya Adams, senior vice president of inclusion and diversity, is chair of COMTO. And Paula Hammond, our national multimodal market leader and senior vice president, is the first woman chair of the ARTBA.
These three incredible women are stellar examples of change agents who are leading the implementation of equity as a defining measure of progress — particularly in the transportation industry — because it’s a vital service, providing a true bedrock for connecting people, places, and opportunities.
METRO: Have the workforce issues transit and other industries are experiencing hit consultant firms as well? If so, what is WSP doing to recruit and retain employees?
Decker: Workforce recruitment and retention issues are impacting the consulting world on the whole, and WSP is no exception.
We are fully aware that our people drive our success and without a commitment to build a workforce that strives to be best-in-class and can achieve their full potential, we will fall short in our goal to exceed expectations for our clients and their needs.
WSP is committed to talent recruitment and retention across all of our disciplines, and we survey our employees to make sure that we are providing a work environment that matches their expectations.
I believe our commitment to equity is key to retention as well. Our Equity Center of Excellence ensures that every project achieves a high standard of accessibility, and I believe that objective aligns with the ethics of our employees and makes sure they believe in what we are doing. That value cannot be underestimated.
Our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team also ensures that our employees are part of a working environment that is built upon a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the office and in the field, and within the communities where we live.
I think we are doing something right. In 2022 our workforce has grown from 55,300 people to 66,200 globally. In the last few years, we have been working towards building a sense of belonging while championing our culture and guiding principles.