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December 2016

Rail News: Rail Industry Trends

Outlook 2017: Transit agency leaders forecast sunnier prospects


— Compiled By Daniel Niepow, Associate Editor

Uncertainty. That's long been the overarching theme for the transit-rail crowd. Subject to the whims of voters and the politicians they elect, transit agencies often face an unpredictable future as they plan service improvements and expansions with limited funds.

But after several sweeping transit initiatives gained approval on local ballots last month, the future's looking a bit brighter for the public transportation industry. In Los Angeles County, for instance, residents passed a sales tax measure that's expected to generate $120 billion for transportation improvements in the region, including three passenger-rail projects.

What's more, Congress last year passed the five-year Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, the first long-term surface transportation funding measure in 10 years.

As American Public Transportation Association Acting President and Chief Executive Officer Dick White puts it: "If anything, the long-term certainty provided by the FAST Act coupled with President-elect Trump's focus on infrastructure investment presents a unique opportunity for transit agencies and communities looking to improve and expand public transportation options."

Still, that's not to say 2017 will be without challenges; maintaining ridership while gas prices drop, for example, remains an area of concern.

Below, White and six transit agency leaders share their thoughts on the year ahead. The other respondents are Henry Li, general manager and CEO of the Sacramento Regional Transit District; Keith Parker, general manager and CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transportation 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.

What are some challenges the public transit industry will face in 2017?

White: We are looking forward to developing a good working relationship with the new [presidential] administration, key appointees and key congressional leadership. The most urgent challenge is for APTA and its members to make the case for increased investment in public transportation during the discussion of an infrastructure package to stimulate growth and create jobs during the first 100 days and beyond of the new administration and Congress. We will emphasize that investing in public transportation more than pays for itself because it yields great economic benefits; every dollar communities invest in public transportation, approximately four dollars is generated in economic returns. This investment will be crucial as America continues to deal with the challenge our crumbling infrastructure. In the public transportation industry, we are facing an $86-billion-dollar backlog in state of good repair needs.

Dick White

Another important challenge will be the implementation of positive train control (PTC).  According to an analyses we just completed, the commuter-rail industry has made significant progress on PTC and we are on schedule to meet Congressional deadlines. The industry has acquired more than two-thirds of the spectrum and half of the radio towers have been erected. In addition, 40 percent of the back office control systems are ready for operation, and we are making great progress on implementing PTC on the more than 3,150 route miles of track. Some are actually in service or in full PTC demonstration awaiting Federal Railroad Administration approvals. This progress on this complex safety technology demonstrates our ongoing commitment to safety – which is our number one priority.

Finally, our continuing challenge this year as in others is to stay laser focused on providing safe, reliable service to the Americans who board public transportation 35 million times each weekday – more than 10.7 billion trips per year. This is particularly important for commuters as our recent study shows that a person can reduce his or her chance of being in an accident by more than 90 percent simply by taking public transit as opposed to commuting by car. Investing in transit-oriented communities, which spurs compact development, results in cutting a community's crash risk in half, even for those who do not use public transit.

Could Trump's presidency and the now Republican-controlled Congress affect transit agencies' plans to expand? If so, how?

White: Last year the Republican-led Congress came together on a bipartisan basis, and President Obama signed into law the first long-term surface transportation bill in more than a decade. This law, known as the FAST Act, authorized funding for public transportation programs through 2020, including the Capital Investment Grants program which specifically supports new systems and expansion. As a result of the certainty provided by the FAST Act, transit agencies all around the country can continue with planned expansion projects and compete for those federal resources.  However, even with the FAST Act, there is still a significant backlog in meeting our state of good repair needs in addition to meeting the demand for new services.   
One of the most exciting things about this election cycle has been the focus on infrastructure investment. As a real estate investor, President-elect Trump fundamentally understands how important transportation infrastructure is to our economy and that public transportation is a critical component of the larger transportation network. Public transportation connects people to jobs and mitigates congestion to allow for more efficient commerce. More than 60 percent of trips on public transportation are to and from work. No matter how good an employer is – they can't compete globally if their employees cannot get to and from work in a cost effective and efficient manner. 

If anything, the long-term certainty provided by the FAST Act coupled with President-elect Trump's focus on infrastructure investment presents a unique opportunity for transit agencies and communities looking to improve and expand public transportation options.


What are some challenges your agency will face in 2017?

Henry Li

Li: Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) will be focused on three key challenges in 2017. First, we will implement strategic initiatives to build ridership. Fortunately, we are off to a great start with the opening of Golden 1 Center (G1C), downtown Sacramento's multipurpose sports and entertainment venue. Ridership has been strong since the first G1C event (Open House/Fan Fest) in which 10,000 passenger trips were taken compared to 1,000 average trips in the past. The surge in ridership has provided a renewed confidence in SacRT's ability to exceed the regional mobility needs of the community and be a valued transportation partner. We need to replicate this success throughout the system.

Second, we will identify and seek alternative and innovative funding sources. In the next two to three years, SacRT will face aging infrastructure and fleet that will cost approximately $200 million. Third, we will look for cost-effective ways to improve the quality of our service.

Parker: Stabilizing and growing our ridership will be a challenge. Across the nation, transit agencies are seeing a decline in ridership due to the low price of gas and ride-sharing services. With the competitive job market, we are challenged with filling vacancies for front line and white-collar positions.

Rogoff: In 2017, Sound Transit will hit the ground running as we begin carrying out an historic $54 billion mass transit extension approved by Puget Sound voters on Nov. 8. This expansion represents an enormous responsibility and challenge for not only 2017, but for the next 25 years. With 800,000 to 1 million new residents expected to be here by 2040, keeping on top of the planning, construction and operations is a major test next year and going forward. The Nov. 8 vote means that, combined with ongoing extensions that are already in construction or planning, Puget Sound's light-rail network will grow from its current 22 miles to 116 miles, with new stations opening every few years. The plan also adds new bus rapid transit service and expanded Sounder commuter-rail service.

Peter Rogoff

In 2017, our light-rail capital construction program will advance at full throttle. A major challenge for next year is gearing up as an organization to meet our commitments to the people of this region while honing an implementation plan that keeps all those projects on schedule. We'll get together with our stakeholders early and often throughout 2017 in order to both understand community interests, and identify with our local partners innovative and efficient ways to procure permits and proceed through environmental reviews so we can meet and, where possible, beat our project completion schedules. We will have to be at our best in 2017.

Smith: In 2017, Valley Metro will be focusing on expansion of our light-rail system, construction of a new station and breaking ground on a new streetcar line. Construction of a 1.9-mile light-rail extension farther east into Mesa will ramp up in 2017 with completion scheduled for late 2018/early 2019. A new station to benefit regional travelers will be added to the current Valley Metro 26-mile system by mid-2019. In late 2017, construction is scheduled for Tempe Streetcar, adding three miles of service that will connect to Valley Metro Rail. The streetcar is anticipated to open in 2020. In addition, we will support the efforts of Phoenix in their ongoing expansion of bus service to meet light-rail hours. At the same time, we have recently been awarded a $1 million Mobility on Demand Sandbox grant from the Federal Transit Administration to enhance our current app with mobile ticketing and trip planning, while working with key partners to provide real-time travel information, fare purchase and optimized trip planning with bike share and ride hailing companies.

Thomas: We need to keep growing to provide mobility options for what is still one of the nation's fastest-growing regions. We completed our 93-mile light-rail system in October; now we are advancing plans for a second light-rail alignment in Downtown Dallas as well as plans to bring passenger rail to the eastern portion of the Cotton Belt rail corridor. This will create a new east-west option for customers on the northern end of our service area and will give us a new rail connection to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. We will continue our 5 -Star Customer Service initiative, to help us deliver a "wow" experience to all of our customers. Our region has made significant investments in rail, so we want to make it as easy as possible for residents to take full advantage of that investment and keep our communities growing.

Phillip Washington

Washington: With the recent passage of Measure M, a local new half-cent sales tax measure to fund a host of transportation improvement projects, this agency will be tasked with developing a comprehensive action plan for carrying out the mandate of the voters. We will be updating our long-range transportation plan to reflect the additional projects to be funded by the measure and beginning the process of getting those shovel-ready projects off the ground and into construction. This coincides with three major rail projects that are already under construction that include an underground Regional Connector project in downtown Los Angeles, an extension of the Purple Line subway system to the Westside and the Crenshaw/LAX line in South Los Angeles. These three projects will advance dramatically in 2017, and project oversight will be an important element as we strive to keep these projects on time and on budget.

What are some of your agency's goals for 2017?

Li: First, to get our financial house in order, we need to relentlessly reduce costs and aggressively increase revenue. Accountability and performance management are key to making excellence the new "normal" at SacRT. Second, [we'll] continue to build partnerships to streamline business processes and implement best practices. We will work with all regional stakeholders such as local chambers of commerce, businesses, and nonprofit and community groups to better understand the transportation needs of their constituencies and foster creative partnerships to help build a robust transit system. For example, we recently launched a ridership program called Station Link where passengers who take Uber, Lyft or Yellow Cab to or from any of our six key light-rail stations receive up to $5 off their ride. Third, the Route Optimization Initiative will consider SacRT's bus and light-rail service as an extension of intercity rail and bus to address two of the top five improvements identified in the 2018 California Rail Plan Survey for passenger rail: Serve more places/expand coverage and improve connections with local transit, bicycle and pedestrian access. With major initiatives started in 2016, SacRT is looking to 2017 as the year to achieve more bold and aggressive goals.

Parker: On Election Night, we were fortunate enough to receive a 73 percent approval from city of Atlanta residents for our half-cent tax referendum, which will allow us to significantly enhance how we provide service in Atlanta. Approximately $2.5 billion (in today's dollars) will be generated over the next 40 years that will have a significant impact on mobility and accessibility for our customers.

Keith Parker

Immediately, we will improve bus service frequency on weekdays and weekends. We also are looking to implement other high capacity transit in the city of Atlanta. We anticipate rolling out the first phase of mobile fare payments and enhancing the customer experience with a pilot for cellular service in three stations. Additionally, we will be improving the infrastructure by providing new signs in our stations with a $35 million Go Transit Grant from the state of Georgia. Finally, we are also in the process of a $1 billion new rail-car procurement, which will give us one of the newest fleets in the industry.

Rogoff: Our goals for 2017 start with safely and reliably carrying an expected 47 million people on our trains and buses. That will be an all-time ridership high for us. After opening three new light-rail stations in 2016, we expect that, for the first time ever, Link light-rail ridership for 2017 will surpass ST Express bus ridership. Following this year’s completion of boring twin tunnels for our light-rail extension to Northgate, in 2017 we will continue building tunnel cross passages and begin work on the stations. Other specific capital project milestones for 2017 include:
• building the light-rail tunnel under downtown Bellevue;
• preparing to kick off construction in 2018 of the Lynnwood Link extension, the final design for which will continue through 2017 with service slated to start in 2023;
• entering final design on the Link Operations and Maintenance Facility East project in Bellevue; and
• starting final design on the Tacoma Link extension from downtown Tacoma to the Stadium District and Hilltop neighborhoods.

Smith: Our top goal is to continue to provide safe and efficient transit service. With the responsibilities of significant expansion in 2017, we must continue to maintain our focus on current operations and serving the residents and visitors in the greater Phoenix area. In doing so, we will continue to enhance security on our light-rail system by working in lockstep with community partners and local law enforcement.

Gary Thomas

Thomas: The goals are pretty similar to the challenges. We want to make our services available and relevant to more people. Part of that is finding ways to deliver transit to cities that aren't presently part of DART. Much of the regional growth is taking place in cities that aren't part of any transit agency. We need to help them see the value of investing in transit as a way of meeting their specific strategic goals.

Washington: Updating our long-range transportation plan is a top priority for this agency that will include new and exciting projects for the region. Maintaining our current ridership and growing that ridership as we improve services to our customers will need to be addressed in the coming year. Another top priority for the agency is to continue providing safe, on-time and efficient bus and rail service to our customers. In addition, being fiscally responsible as stewards of the taxpayers money is a priority, especially in light of the passage of Measure M that will generate an additional $860 million a year in transportation funding for the region to grow our transportation network. Clearly, there is a transportation revolution happening here in Los Angeles County that is the envy of the nation and the world, and we will get it right. It will indeed be a game changer for the entire region.

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