Consultant Roundtable: Industry Focusing On Gains

Posted on June 15, 2012 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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InfraConsult LLC
Alan Wulkan, Managing Partner

Now that President Obama’s term is almost up is there a change of opinion about this Administration from the public transportation industry’s point of view?
No, it’s still very difficult to find an Administration that has been more supportive of public transportation than the Obama Administration. First of all, more than once having high-speed rail and transit mentioned in the State of the Union address is unique, and in incredibly difficult economic times, they have consistently supported level or increased funding for public transportation, especially when you include high-speed rail. It would be fair to say that we are all disappointed that we haven’t seen a more aggressive reauthorization proposal from the Administration, but again, when you balance all of the issues and the priorities going on in the country and the way Congress is currently composed, I just can’t find any serious criticism of the Administration’s support of public transportation.

Do you feel the industry can still maintain its growth, both short- and long-term?
We have a combination of things happening. At the local level, we continue to see new sources of income, taxes and support for public transportation, so the foundation for public transportation funding has never been better. Even in these economic times, we’re passing 75% of the local initiatives and seeing growth in ridership, so at the local level, clearly public transportation’s popularity continues to grow.

At the national level, despite a lot of attacks on the transit account and the trust fund which we were able to beat back as an industry when the House T&I Committee decided they were going to do something dramatic to how we fund public transportation, the public support was overwhelming at the local level to make sure that nothing dramatic happened to the program in Washington, so I find that encouraging.

Why do you feel there is so much success at the state and local level and why doesn’t that translate over to the federal side?
The general public has been way ahead of elected officials, in general, on the need for options and choices in how they travel. The fact that gasoline prices are at $4, and in some cases approaching $5, isn’t just a phenomena of the last increase, they have obviously seen prices steadily rise over the last four or five years, and so, people want choice.
Also despite how fuel efficient cars are going to be and despite whatever changes are going to happen in the way we public transportation fund in the future, I still believe congestion ranks in almost every major community as the number one or two issue facing communities in their desire in having quality of life and sustainable communities. We’re going to have 100 million new people in this country, mostly in the urban areas over the next 20 years, so it’s no wonder people are concerned over how they are going to move.

Third, we’re seeing a shift in the public’s priorities when it comes to what’s important to them, and time with families, free time, seems to be becoming far more important than most ever in my working life. We’re seeing that with our own employees, as well. Honolulu was just rated the worst congested community, even worse than L.A. It’s no wonder that the public there is interested in supporting a major transit investment, because they are losing time with their families, they are losing time by sitting in traffic and they don’t see that getting better. That is one of the main reasons why public transportation continues to grow in popularity, because we provide a high quality alternative.

Elizabeth Rao, Chair, transit services

Have changes to New Starts helped or hindered the industry?
Changes to the New Starts process implemented over the last three years are helping the transit industry more successfully navigate the New Starts process. The changes proposed through the recent Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), if enacted, have the potential to move the industry further by providing a more simplified process with understandable measures for rating New Starts and Small Starts projects. The new guidance proposed will reduce the need for multiple discussions between the sponsor and FTA over project requirements and improve the overall intelligibility of the New Starts ratings process. This is important not only for the transit industry but for the public as well. It will make it easier to explain the basis of FTA project approvals and funding recommendations to elected officials and the community. Changes proposed will also expedite the preparation of required project information allowing timely federal project approvals.

Other than more funds, what kind of program/changes would you like to see in the upcoming bill?
Investing in our nation’s transportation infrastructure is a national priority. Other than additional funds, it is very important that more certainty and predictability be provided in the federal authorization bill to specify annual funding levels that can be relied upon. Our current practice of year-to-year continuing authorizations makes it difficult for agencies to plan for the future. While the economy continues to present challenges, timely decisions must be made on how our country’s critical transportation needs are funded as part of the overall federal budget.

What is your company’s greatest challenge?
Our greatest challenge is continuing to evaluate and respond to the rapidly changing needs of our clients. Whether it is developing cost-effective designs, efficient project delivery methods or implementing new technology applications, our clients are interested in saving time, reducing expenses and getting a bigger bang for their dollar. HNTB is responding to this challenge by continuing to provide a sophisticated team of transportation managers that understand this full service approach.

STV Incorporated
Richard Amodei, Sr. VP/chief strategic growth officer

Canada has successfully instituted a rail program that has abundant buy-in. How have they done it?
Several years ago, the Canadian Federal Government made a decision to significantly increase funding for public transportation initiative nationwide. Prior to this, the federal government was less involved in major public transit funding support. This provided a catalyst for several new major transit initiatives, and when combined with existing and increased provincial and local funding, they now have money to really start planning, designing and building mass transit projects. We are seeing this across Canada. A great example is in the capital city of Ottawa, where they have a fully funded $2.1 billion light rail project that is supported by the province, the federal government and the City of Ottawa, which is moving quickly through the procurement process and toward final design and construction in early 2013.

In the Region of Waterloo they actually made the decision to move ahead and confirm funding on a light rail project while they were in the planning stages. That project is in preliminary engineering and is scheduled to move forward into design and construction by the end of this year.

One of the key components to Canada’s success is the ability to decide early in the process to make the commitment to funding for the project once they believe it has merit, meets the needs of the community, and helps improve the quality of transportation and mitigate congestion. Early commitment to funding prior to fully completed planning and environmental analyses is one of the biggest drivers that helps make Canada successful when it comes to mass transit projects.

Anything the U.S. could learn from Canada?
Obviously, it all comes down to funding, but innovation is also very important. Canada is and has been making a big push to encourage and use alternate project delivery methods that include operations, maintenance and financing. Provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia, have created departments that focus and implement PPPs for large infrastructure projects to help support city and agency sponsors of major initiatives over a certain dollar threshold. I believe they will continue to move in this direction and these are areas where we can share a lot of knowledge and lessons learned, especially because financing is more frequently part of the alternative project delivery strategy.

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