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Rail News: Passenger Rail
Outlook 2019: For rail transit, a period of re-examination and reinvention
Compiled By Daniel Niepow, Associate Editor
There’s no sugar-coating it: U.S. public transit infrastructure is crumbling. In early 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) released a report that showed a nearly $90 billion backlog in maintenance of transit assets across the country.
That figure could soar to $122 billion over the next two decades if maintenance funding isn’t increased accordingly, USDOT officials said. So for transit leaders, state-of-good-repair efforts remain top of mind.
At the same time, they’re exploring ways to grapple with rapid technological changes and potential “disruptors” as riders continue using alternative transportation options, such as Lyft and Uber. Some are re-examining — or even reinventing — their respective agency’s role as a transportation provider as a result.
On the following pages, eight transit agency leaders share their thoughts about challenges and opportunities in the year ahead. They are Jim Derwinski, executive director and chief executive officer of Metra; Doug Kelsey, general manager of the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet); Jeffrey Knueppel, GM of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA); Jeffrey Parker, GM and CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority; Peter Rogoff, CEO of Sound Transit; Scott Smith, CEO of Valley Metro; Gary Thomas, president and executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit; and Phillip Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).
What will be your agency’s biggest challenge in 2019, and how will you address it?
Derwinski: Our biggest challenge in 2019, as it has been in years past, is addressing shortfalls in funding, particularly capital funding. Like most other public transportation agencies across the country, we have a long list of capital needs, ranging from rail cars and locomotives that are well past their useful lives to bridges that are more than 100 years old to stations that are in need of rehabilitation.
These shortfalls have not only impeded our ability to upgrade our system, but they have prevented us from enhancing and expanding service to meet the region’s growing needs.
We are cautiously optimistic that 2019 will be different, that the Illinois Legislature will approve a big public works bill that will benefit Metra and all of the state’s infrastructure. We will be spending our time engaging with our stakeholders in Springfield and the public, and educating them about our needs and the consequences of not addressing them.
Kelsey: The biggest challenge on the horizon for TriMet will be managing service growth and meeting our state-of-good-repair needs, while setting the stage to move from a transit agency to a “mobility agency” in the face of changing technology and lifestyles.
I am realigning TriMet’s internal structures and practices to embrace the conversion to a mobility agency through a reorganization announced in late 2018, which will fully settle in during the first part of 2019.
I’ve also worked with my executives and leadership team to update our rolling five-year business plan for fiscal-year 2019 (July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019) with an emphasis on assuring and improving personal safety for customers, employees and the public; implementing service enhancement plans using dedicated funding and a new transit funding stream established July 1, 2018, by the Oregon Legislature; and continuing investments in our existing infrastructure and facilities, while balancing resources for staffing, service and capital improvements.
The plan also aims to ensure reliable service and improve the customer experience, including infrastructure upgrades, operator training, excelled communication internally and with customers, and enhanced transit traffic management. Moreover, it targets building ridership through quality, on-time service and innovation from the full implementation of an electronic fare system, and advancing regional projects to meet the priority needs for mobility, access and development in key corridors identified by the region.
Knueppel: SEPTA continues to be committed to tackling its backlog of capital repair needs while also advancing initiatives to address growing capacity constraints on the rail system. Aging fleets — Regional Rail cars dating to the mid-1970s and trolleys to the early 1980s — threaten SEPTA’s ability to keep pace with the Philadelphia region’s impressive growth in recent years.
In 2019, we will further efforts to add system capacity through vehicle procurements, building on new locomotives already being delivered and multilevel rail cars that are on order.
In addition, we will continue with design work on the King of Prussia rail project, a 4-mile extension of the Norristown High Speed Line connecting SEPTA’s rail network to the Philadelphia region’s third-largest job center. We are also focused on growing capacity on the Market-Frankford Line, which is the workhorse of our system that interconnects with every rail line.
Parker: For many reasons, 2019 will be a banner year for MARTA. A major focus will be preparing our agency to handle Super Bowl LIII in February, a 10-day event with a lot of moving parts. We’re expecting a million people to visit Atlanta during that time and MARTA will be responsible for moving gameday fans, event staff and volunteers, and Atlanta visitors while still maintaining quality service for our daily customers.
We’ve been working diligently on our plans for more than a year, an effort which requires an extraordinary level of coordination and collaboration – internally and externally. The MARTA Police Department has hosted a full-scale exercise with other law enforcement agencies to test our emergency preparedness response and we’ve been using other big sporting events as dry runs to further refine our service strategy and tactics.
MARTA has hosted the Super Bowl and the Olympics before, and I’m confident our team will rise to the occasion again. We’re always honored to be the critical mobility partner for these iconic events that showcase our city and our transit system.
Rogoff: One of our challenges is maintaining budget discipline. We’re in one of the hottest construction markets in the country, and that has pushed up our costs. We are also facing major alignment decisions on three separate projects, so it is critical that the board and decision-makers carefully monitor our finances.
In addition, economists are expecting a recession in the next two years. We will have to carefully monitor revenue to ensure that our capital projects are fully funded.
Another challenge that comes with major expansion — in our case, the largest expansion in the country — is that we need to remain diligent in our commitment to serving our riders. We are one of the few regions in the country seeing major transit ridership growth. We need to make sure we pay close attention to our ridership as it grows year over year. We want to make sure the customer experience is a good one.
Finally, as an agency we have articulated clear cultural values. But in an agency that is growing very quickly in staff size, we need to make sure that those values are understood by all staff. We’re all rowing in the same direction, and the core value are part of that. It’s important for all employees, new and old, to embrace those values.
Smith: Our challenge is the industry’s challenge. How do we better understand the rapid change that the transit industry is experiencing with the advent of new technology, challenges in ridership and political uncertainty? We need to determine how we not only adapt, but how we can become leaders in an ever-changing environment.
Political uncertainty has caused stress with traditional funding mechanisms, especially the funding of light-rail projects. In addition, a strong economy has driven up construction costs so we are having to rethink how and when we build projects.
Washington: Metro is implementing the nation’s largest infrastructure program with 40 major road, transit and active transportation projects to be built over the next 40 years with funding from our Measure M sales tax. The challenge will be continuing the good work that we have already done to keep Measure M on track. We are also working to build as many of those projects as we can prior to the 2028 Summer Olympics and Paralympics to be held in the LA area.
For some projects, that will mean either accelerating or finding new funding. Metro currently has four rail projects under construction. Staying on top of those projects and keeping costs contained is an obvious priority.
We also must continue to steer three bus rapid transit and a handful of rail projects through the environmental study and design phases while keeping costs in line with funding that is available. This puts the onus on our planning and program management teams to prevent project bloat while building the projects that the public clearly wants.
What are some of your priorities for the new year?
Derwinski: Assuming we can secure more capital funding, our priorities will be on work that enhances safety and security, reduces operating costs and/or increases efficiency and increases ridership.
More specifically, we hope to be buying some desperately needed new cars (with possibly a new car design) and new or remanufactured locomotives in 2019.
We also will be upgrading the GPS system we use for tracking trains and providing communications to our customers. There will be a major upgrade to the app that provides mobile ticketing.
And we will continue some major bridge projects on two lines, a third track project on one line and a massive congestion-relief project on a fourth line. Finally, our work on installing positive train control will be nearing the finish line.
Kelsey: My priorities will include helping leadership and employees embrace the internal changes and understand the strategy necessary to move from a transit agency to a mobility agency. We will focus on delivering the goals and objectives laid out in our business plan for the year, which will put us on that path.
At the same time, we will work with our partners to prioritize transit on a regional level. That will include how to increase the reliability of transit service through treatments such as dedicated transit lanes and transit signal priority while also determining how fast and to what extent to expand transit throughout the Portland metro area. It will also include working on new partnerships to increase mobility through connections to transit.
Knueppel: SEPTA understands that it is competing for both customers and employees as the labor market tightens, and that will continue to be a major focus for us in 2019. For customers, in addition to infrastructure improvements, we are working on a number of technology initiatives to improve the customer experience, such as the SEPTA Key fare modernization program, which is moving toward a full rollout.
We are also increasing the availability of real-time travel information for customers, and will move forward with a project to add countdown clocks on the subway system. While we advance programs aimed at customers service, we have to remain focused on attracting and retaining employees, particularly in a tight job market. We will continue efforts to meet our hiring needs, and further succession planning. We will also continue work to strengthen our core business.
SEPTA has adopted an industry-leading sustainability program, and in 2019 that will expand to include our first 25 battery-electric buses. SEPTA knows that safety is the foundation of everything we do, and we’ll reinforce that in 2019. We have implemented PTC on our Regional Rail system, and will look to new, cutting-edge safety technologies such as communications-based train control for our trolleys.
Parker: MARTA is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a combined bus and rail system in 2019. We’re viewing this historic milestone as an opportunity to get back to the basics while also looking to the future potential to expand our footprint — and our economic impact — across the Atlanta region.
Our priorities for the year include strengthening the relationships with our employees, customers and the communities we are proud to serve.
My overall vision for the agency is fiscal stability, operational excellence, exceptional program delivery and world-class customer service.
Rogoff: Our priorities flow from our dedication to meeting the aforementioned challenges.
First, we are starting construction on two major light-rail expansions next year. In the first quarter, we will break ground on our 8.5-mile, $2.77 billion Lynnwood light rail project, which will extend regional service to the north into a third county, Snohomish County, in 2024.
In the third quarter, we will break ground on our 7.8-mile, $2.4 billion Federal Way light-rail project, which extends our King County line south toward Pierce County.
Second, we are identifying the preferred alignment for two more major light-rail expansions: Our 11.8-mile line to Seattle’s West Seattle and Ballard neighborhoods; and our $125.7 million, 9.7 mile light-rail expansion south into Pierce County for our Tacoma Dome line.
Whether your agency is identifying alignments or breaking ground on construction, every phase of a project is critical. Keeping your eye on values such as quality, inclusion and customer focus every step of the way sets the stage for a successful project long term.
Smith: I’d like to better understand the rapidly changing world of transit. It’s exciting, yet somewhat scary. My personal goal is to learn all about the new technologies in transportation and figure out how best I can lead this organization through challenging times.
Thomas: In 2019, we will continue advancing more than $2.5 billion in rail projects that will keep North Texas moving. Construction on the 26-mile Cotton Belt passenger rail — giving us a second connection to DFW Airport — will begin. We will also order the rail cars.
Planning continues on a second downtown Dallas rail line, a subway known as D2. This increases capacity through our busiest corridor. We expect a record of decision in 2020-2021.
We will begin work on light-rail platform extensions outside of downtown Dallas, which will let us operate longer train sets throughout our 93-mile network. Work also continues with the city of Dallas on the extension of its streetcar.
While our local funding is secure and our federal funding mechanisms are coming together, we still believe it is important for the federal government to provide substantial, sustained and predictable funding for projects like these that improve mobility and help transit agencies transform the regions they serve.
Beyond advancing these projects, we will deploy new customer tools to help us stay relevant with an evolving market. In late 2018 we updated our GoPass mobile ticketing app adding fare-capping and a “cash-to-mobile” option. It’s the first transit app to offer these benefits. In early 2019, GoPass will be integrated with other transportation modes, including car and ride-share, helping customers create and pay for a complete trip in a single app.
Washington: Our Office of Extraordinary Innovation must continue its work to develop public-private partnerships that could reduce risk for Metro, supply favorable financing for projects and possibly accelerate others. While Metro has always strived to be inclusive, our recently adopted Equity Platform moves equity to the forefront of decisions we make about transportation.
In plain English, this means that we can’t just assume a rising tide of transportation projects will lift all boats. Equity is about smarter planning, an increased commitment to environmental justice, more targeted public outreach and achieving better outcomes to improve access and economic opportunities for everyone in Los Angeles County. Especially communities that have historically been left behind.
Our equity platform is a new way of thinking. It will take time to implement but it will ultimately result in an agency that thinks and acts more holistically about its ability to impact and shape our community for the better.
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