As Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee said: “It is better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret.”
A cross-section of APTA members interviewed for this issue reflected that thought, time and again. And in terms of looking ahead, nearly all of them identified authorization of a long-term multimodal surface transportation bill as the top issue for the industry in the coming year.
Other key elements included having a comprehensive vision of the future; taking advantage of new technologies; mentoring and ushering in a new generation of industry leaders; developing standards as a flexible, not fixed, tool; and making sustainability a key operational function.
These individuals represent public transit systems and businesses, and a number of them have worked in both—so their forward-looking views reflect decades’ worth of lessons learned.
What Is the Biggest Issue Facing the Industry in 2012?
The overwhelming response to this question was money. “Most importantly it’s authorization. That’s number one and number two and number three,” said Patrick J. Scully, chief commercial officer, Daimler Buses North America, and second vice chair, APTA Business Member Board of Governors. “Making sure we have a viable long-term funding mechanism is absolutely critical to us,” he added.
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) General Manager Joseph M. Casey in Philadelphia was more succinct. “Funding, funding, and funding,” he said, calling it the number one issue facing public transit agencies across the country. He added that “the big question mark is, the next time the cost of gas goes up, resulting in an increased demand for public transit services, will there be financial resources to address that demand?”
“The big issue is always money—for crumbling infrastructure and new cars—that’s the bottom line. Authorization ensures that money continues to flow to public transportation,” said Robin M. Reitzes, deputy city attorney, City & County of San Francisco, and incoming chair, APTA Legal Affairs Committee.
Patrick A. Nowakowski, executive director, Dulles Rail Project, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, and co-chair, APTA Procurement Steering Committee, stated that “getting a new transportation bill passed would be at the top of any list anyone would put together.”
But they and others agree that, while a good authorization bill is critically needed, it’s really just the beginning step. “We always start out with funding,” said Ronald L. Barnes, senior advisor, North America, Steer Davies Gleave North America Inc., and chair, APTA Mobility Management Committee, “but I think our issues are going to be even broader. Building partnerships and greater collaboration—those are our challenges.”
With fewer dollars, how do public transit systems maintain and operate what they currently have, particularly at a time when its reach continues to expand—and still innovate?
Susannah Kerr Adler, vice president/national director-transportation facilities, URS Corporation, and vice chair, APTA Sustainability Committee, noted that “we all need to approach this with peripheral vision and we can’t afford to focus on just our area of expertise— whether operating a system or building a bus—but we have to look at the broader issues and be able to connect the dots.”
How Should the Industry Approach This Issue?
In these uncertain financial times, Matthew O. Tucker, executive director, North County Transit District, Oceanside, CA, and chair, APTA Safety Coordinating Council, stressed the need to “look into other areas to tap in revenue opportunities, whether that be advertising revenue or looking at other public-private partnerships that may yield opportunities.” He continued: “We have made significant amounts of adjustments in 2008 and 2009. We renegotiated all of our contracts—and I do mean all. We transitioned our bus operations to the private sector. We changed our business model for delivering paratransit service, and we refocused our business model to increase revenue and become more of a contracts management agency.”
For San Diego, said Claire Spielberg, chief operating officer, transit services, San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, and chair, APTA Bus Operations Committee, “the issue is trying to cope with increased ridership with short budgets. You have increased revenue, but if it doesn’t really pay for the ride, you’re going to be struggling.”
A recent APTA report, “Impacts of the Recession on Public Transportation Agencies,” supported this point, finding that 71 percent of responding public transit systems saw flat or decreased local and/or regional funding and 83 percent saw flat or decreased state funding. Further, nearly 80 percent of these agencies had already implemented fare increases or service cuts in 2010 or were considering them for the future.
“I think we’re learning to be better managers because we really have to sharpen our skills and be certain we’re getting the best return on investment as far as what we’re spending on labor, supplies, and services,” said Donna DeMartino, general manager/chief executive officer, San Joaquin Regional Transit District, Stockton, CA, and chair, APTA Bus & Paratransit CEOs Committee.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) faces its own challenge: simultaneously rebuilding the infrastructure of its aging system while also eliminating what was initially a close to $300 million deficit.
“We are going to right the fiscal ship of CTA one way or another,” said CTA President Forrest Claypool. This includes working closely with its labor partners as they renegotiate all the contracts while continuing to find other efficiencies in service improvements.
“In Des Moines, we have been working on a lot of long-range planning and those sorts of initiatives,” said Elizabeth Presutti, general manager, Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority-DART. “And as we start to look further and further out, it gets cloudy: how do you plan when there’s no increase in revenue in the foreseeable future and the expenses keep growing?”
Reitzes suggested the possibility of issuing bonds or implementing some kind of impact fees. “There are all sorts of ways to be creative to increase revenue that vary from state to state,” she said. “That’s one way that agencies will be under the gun to explore.”
What is the Role of Technology?
Respondents agreed generally that technology advancements offer opportunities for systems and businesses to operate both better and smarter.
Rick Ramacier, general manager, Central Contra Costa Transit Authority, Concord, CA, and chair, APTA Access Committee, gave an example from his system: “We’re finishing off a long-term project where we revamped all the bus technology to be able to capture every rider, what fare type they are. We can now do bus stop-by bus stop-rider analysis.”
Kerr Adler suggested a wider approach to using new technologies: “We need to look at them in a broad manner, and also look at what other industries are doing and see if there are some innovative ways to apply those to what we are doing—or perhaps even bundling some of the these technologies with non-transit organizations. For instance, if someone is planning a trip, what are the choices? Timing of bus and rail? Walking? Traffic patterns, so that riders can have a choice of—according to their priorities—do they need to drive, is it easier to walk or bike? If the riders take a train, when does it arrive? When does the bus that travels to the rider’s home to the train arrive? The idea is to bundle them together in web-based technology to enable people to make the most effective choices.”
Dulles’ Nowakowski emphasized the rapid rate of change in technology, citing communication systems as an example. “You need to establish something that will last a certain number of years in the future because you can’t keep replacing that every year,” he said, and suggested focusing on ascertaining “what is the backbone system, and how can we create that with the ability to update it?”
Integrating new technology is another important issue for the year ahead, said Spielberg: “The rollout is quite costly but the benefits can be very, very good.”
Social media is an important trend, said Scully. “We’ve got to be paying attention to this because the users are both today’s and tomorrow’s customers,” he explained. “Whether it’s information that our operators use or fare collection data or passenger counters—these kinds of information systems that are in public transportation vehicles these days offer a wealth of information. That’s the frontier.”
Where Does Safety Fit In?
Speaking candidly about the role funding plays in safety, Ramacier worried that safety might be an area people “skimp” on if funding is reduced.
“I would bundle safety into security and emergency preparedness,” said Kerr Adler, adding: “You need to think of these things at whatever the stage of the project or program you’re engaged with.”
Promoting the safety culture is an integral part of how Des Moines/DART does business. “It is always right at the top of things. We’re more attuned to it than we’ve ever been before,” said Presutti. Spielberg echoed that thought: “Safety is really a function of your operation.” As did DeMartino: “Over the last couple of years there has been a lot of national attention to transit safety, so I can speak for our agency—we really appreciated having an APTA safety peer review. And it’s important to the public: they need to have confidence in our services that we will operate safely and reliably.”
Tucker said he believes that 2012 will be another year the industry continues to make safety its top priority. “APTA’s Safety Coordinating Council, as well as a task force, will help lead the way in advancing safety initiatives,” he added.
Spielberg noted that all her agency’s buses are camera-equipped, which has resulted in at least one-third of all customer complaints against drivers being rejected—because the videos show the driver operating appropriately. “I don’t know how we operated without them,” she said.
In Chicago, CTA put up several thousand cameras (and added 50 more transit police officers) as part of its focus on safety—“our number one issue coming in”, said Claypool. One video let CTA deliver evidence that led to a murder suspect’s arrest; others have provided major leads to violent offenders. This videotaping effort, Claypool noted, now acts as a deterrent in the system “because criminals know they will be watched.” All this, he added, increases the customers’ sense of security.
Workforce Development: ‘Sustainability’ of the Industry?
Kerr Adler called the effort to find and bring along the next generation of workers and leaders the “sustainability of the industry.” Ramacier termed workforce development “a critical area,” adding: “Transit should be the kind of place where someone with a great skill set can come in. It shouldn’t be that you’re either in transit for 30 years or you’re not. We need to broaden our reach.”
“We must develop a transit workforce for the future that mirrors the skills we need across the board,” said Casey.
“I think we have some very talented people coming into this industry,” said Barnes. “I think about the students coming out of our colleges and into our industry, and what they are bringing is phenomenal. I am excited about what the American Public Transportation Foundation is doing, acting as the “seed’ for making that happen—and building on that.”
Where Do Standards … Stand in 2012?
APTA has more than 200 standards and industry-recommended practices posted at www.apta.com. These cover an array of topics including improving safety/security, sharing risk across the entire industry, and providing common procurement specifications.
Several members noted that standards, while critically important, must take into account that ultimately they are about people—and people, as Ramacier noted, “don’t fit into standard boxes.” He gave the example of a service being operated that carries 10 people per hour, but the standard says it should be 20. He said such a service could be discontinued because it didn’t meet the standard, and that he disagreed with that approach. “There’s no mandate to serve them except it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
DeMartino said she believes developing and using standards will both provide untapped opportunities and save money “because it helps us really hone in on the best products.” Spielberg also noted the practical aspect: “Creating standards will save everybody a lot of resources in the long run, so manufacturers won’t be making 100 types of the same thing.”
Sustainability Is Greening, Plus …?
What will be the role of sustainability in this coming year? Ramacier is pleased that the perspective has broadened beyond just the vehicle “to all the things we do, whether it’s green buildings or green practices.”
DeMartino credited environmental sustainability systems management training in helping her agency identify and address environment aspects that reduce cost and pollution, such as reducing bus idling to decrease fuel use and examining how the agency disposes of electronic equipment.
San Diego offers another example. “I have ‘only’ 13 diesel buses left out of a fleet of 500,” said Spielberg, with just one depot remaining that cannot provide natural gas, and a master plan is in place to fix that. And the system in Des Moines broke ground in the spring for a LEED-designed transfer transit facility—and hopes to achieve platinum certification for it.
SEPTA’s Casey said: “It’s hand in hand—being more environmentally friendly also has a financial benefit.”
Some Final Thoughts
All these topics, said Nowakowski, “always fall under the mantra of ‘continuous improvement,’ because there’s never a finish line.”
Reitzes described public transportation as “a public necessity like providing gas or electricity. It should be looked at as having equal importance of any other public utility.” She and others, including Presutti, stressed the necessity of making sure industry leaders have a clear message and impart it, frequently.
Scully gets the last word(s): “We are at an important time in our business: new leadership at APTA, a very critical situation in funding, we have elections occurring. I think this year will really set the stage for the next five-year time frame. For everybody in the industry, being active with APTA and their elected officials; making sure we get the best possible funding mechanism for public transportation; and making sure that public transportation is at the forefront of city, state, and federal agendas is what we all should be striving to achieve.”