Cover Story: Fast track to the future

November 2006 » Exclusive
Those of us in the engineering profession are known for our attention to detail. In many cases, a few small details can turn a merely good project into a great one.
Linda Bohlinger

Emerging trends that will shape mass transit

The engineering profession is known for its attention to detail. In many cases, a few small details can turn a merely good project into a great one.

However, sometimes it's easy to get so involved in the details of a particular project that we lose sight of the larger trends transforming our industry. That's why HNTB committed substantial resources during the past year to sit down with transportation industry leaders across the nation and ask them about the issues and trends they are facing. (See, "How this study was conducted" below.)

In some cases, their responses confirmed trends we already had identified. Other times, their responses surprised us. Taken together, they have given us a candid look into the major issues in transportation today.

One conclusion has become crystal clear: Understanding emerging trends in transportation, and then providing practical solutions, will be critical to the continued success of the civil engineering profession.

The HNTB interviews were wide-ranging, but the findings can be grouped into several trends, which are explored in this article:

  • Financing—Transportation agencies are seeking alternative funding sources, including public-private partnerships.
  • Technology—Emerging technology will continue to drive the way our clients do business and the way we serve them.
  • Safety—Protecting passengers and property is top-of-mind in the post-9/11 environment.

Financing: A universal concern

It comes as no surprise that transportation agencies are concerned about how to pay for much-needed projects. Most notable, however, is just how universal this concern is.

HNTB met with industry leaders from numerous transportation sectors, in different-sized agencies, and from coast to coast. When it came to the most critical concerns, they spoke with one voice: The U.S. transportation system is in need of repair, and the money to fix it is in short supply.

In economic terms, agencies face both supply-side and demand-side challenges. Transportation leaders often cannot look to the federal government to solve the funding gap. Closer to home, few state and local bodies are eager to raise taxes for transportation.

Reduced funding expectations are on a collision course with increased infrastructure needs and rising costs. According to a recent survey from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, project costs are up more than 50 percent in 11 percent of states, and from 20 percent to 50 percent in another 43 percent of states, compared to last year. Business as usual in the transportation industry is not sufficient to meet new challenges.

That's why industry leaders are looking for alternative funding sources. Many are intrigued with public-private partnerships. Toll roads are under development in many states, offering those governments a way to fund much-needed construction and the private sector a reliable source of revenue.

Both Wall Street and foreign investors show significant interest in privately funded transportation solutions that will produce a return on investment. More than $25 billion of private investments have been proposed or committed for new and existing roads in six states, The Reason Foundation estimated in April 2006.

The challenge is how to replicate the momentum of private equity investments for mass transportation, which traditionally has relied upon public subsidies to break even. Although nearly all of the sources interviewed mentioned public-private partnerships as part of the long-term solution, they also remain somewhat skeptical.

Another key finding is that interest in multimodal transportation is important in most states. Transportation industry experts see no decrease in peoples' need or desire to travel, just changes in travel type. Fewer Americans like to drive, as the result of increased traffic congestion. Congestion-relief options being discussed are increased rail transit, bus rapid transit, congestion/value pricing, open road tolling, and High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

The following potential growth sectors were identified by this study:

Public transportation—Transit or public transportation as a transportation alternative is growing because of population growth, an aging population, an increase in immigrants, and increased fuel prices, an American Public Transportation Association official reported. Recent reports from Minneapolis and Los Angeles show how demand can increase by more than 100 percent over planning expectations in the areas of light rail and bus rapid transit.

Goods movement—Freight rail and trucking issues are getting more attention within the industry. According to HNTB research interviews, freight rail solutions are becoming more of a viable idea with some state transportation departments. Rail is likely to become a big part of the solution. Trucks currently haul about 68 percent of the nation's freight, which is estimated by the American Trucking Association's Freight Forecast to increase to 75 percent by 2016. Heavily traveled areas are considering or implementing tolled truck-only lanes, our research showed.

Civil engineering firms that can explore alternative funding options and find solutions that work in the real world always will have the ear of transportation industry leaders.

Technology: Acquisition and application are critical

It goes without saying that technology is reshaping the way both engineering firms and their clients do business. Everything from GPS/GIS mapping to automated toll collection can make transportation agencies more efficient in the future. The question is, "How will agencies procure and deploy that technology?"

Budget crunches are forcing transportation agencies to make tough decisions. Not every level within an agency requires the same technology, and making the correct deployment decisions will have a significant impact on productivity.

Technology also is changing the way engineering firms present designs and concepts to their clients. Animation and computer-generated images can help clients visualize and buy into ideas they may have had difficulty envisioning in the past.

It may be easy to lose sight of how technological innovation also will change the human element of our business. Between now and 2010, more and more design decisions will be made in real time, and prototypes will be built around key components of the client's vision.

In this brave new world, knowledge is king. Many industry leaders said they place a high priority on staying on top of technology trends by reading trade publications, attending seminars, and talking with colleagues. Those of us who serve them must keep ourselves current and be trusted advisers.

Safety: National security heightens concerns

The transportation industry has long prided itself on its commitment to the safety of its passengers and property. Our experts mentioned safety—defined as reducing fatalities and injuries—as an overriding concern across all transportation sectors. They tend to support increased safety funding, as well as public- and private-sector efforts to improve safety.

Since 9/11, safety has come to mean far more than simply accident prevention. Transportation safety and national security have become more intertwined. The Department of Homeland Security sees numerous additional changes integrating safety and security in future design, ranging from private-sector partnerships with local law enforcement to its Urban Area Security Initiative.

Tying it all together

Conducting and analyzing a study of this magnitude is a bit like peering into a kaleidoscope: The viewer's perspective helps determine much of what is seen.
What does the future hold from the perspective of civil engineers working in the transportation sector?

First, this is perhaps the most significant period of change I have seen since I began working in the transportation industry. Reduced funding and a deteriorating transportation infrastructure are creating a "perfect storm" of either problems or opportunities, depending on how we address them.

Second, transportation leaders are taking a much broader view of engineering firms. Instead of simply designing, building, and fixing things, they are being counted upon as strategic partners. This will open doors for firms that are prepared to take advantage of the situation.

Third, knowledge creates opportunity in this new environment. One of the best ways for a company to distinguish itself from the competition is by making itself an indispensable source of information about the technology and trends that shape our industry.

Linda Bohlinger is well known within the public transportation industry, having led two agencies before joining HNTB Corporation in 2000: the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the South Florida Tri-Rail Commuter Rail system. She also was deputy director of the California Transportation Commission.

How this study was conducted

This article is based on the findings reflected in Our Changing Clients: A Study of Trends in Client Organizations' Funding and Procurement, a white paper produced by HNTB Corporation. It distills the insights from numerous client interviews conducted in late 2005 and early 2006. Each interview focused on the following key themes:

Funding

  • Trends
  • Funding alternatives

Organizational changes

  • Procurement
  • Services outsourced
  • Types of procurements

Innovations

  • Challenges
  • Opportunities

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