(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 360: Transit Expansion and Service in the Pandemic
This week we’re at the 2021 Virtual Railvolution conference. Adelee Le Grand, CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit System in Tampa moderates a panel featuring Debra Johnson, GM and CEO of RTD in Denver and Peter Rogoff, CEO of Sound Transit in Seattle. Johnson and Rogoff discuss transit expansion plans and progress in their respective regions as well as how they kept things going during the pandemic.
Adelee Le Grand (1m 37s):
Good morning, everyone. I’m happy to be here with you to engage in this session today called growing trans assistance for a new world. We know that we have all been experiencing a new world, and today we’ll hear from some of the industry leaders on how our transit agencies are dealing with the growing changes within our systems and how we support a rapidly changing world. Today. We’re going to hear from two really powerful CEOs in the transit space. We have Peter Gross Goff. He is the chief executive officer of transit sound transit as well as Debra Johnson, who is the chief executive officer and general manager of the regional transportation district in Denver.
Adelee Le Grand (2m 25s):
Well in Colorado, the greater Denver, Colorado area. I just want to be specific there. So hello again. Good morning to both of you. And I thought it’d be great if we could kick off this conversation and just hear a bit about your capital program and some of what you have on the books and maybe some of the areas that you’re really focused on today. So let’s start with Deborah Good morning and thank you Adelee and hello to Peter. It’s my pleasure to join you all here for this panel revolution. So to give a thumbnail sketch of RTDs program, which is coined
Debra Johnson (2m 59s):
Tracks, it was originally planned and approved by the voters back in 2004. And it was a lot of effort in the sense that it included six rail lines, one bus, rapid transit line, and three rail extensions. It also included an expansion of existing bus service. Interestingly enough, back in 2011, it actually was deferred to help with the other capital projects that I referenced being the six rail lines and the BRT line and the expectation of this program when it was first put forward to the voters with that, it would be a hundred percent completed by 2017.
Debra Johnson (3m 43s):
As we stand today here in 2021, RTD has completed full construction on four rail lines for also construction on two rail lines and full construction of one BRT line. I do want to qualify the BRT it’s more or less BRT light doesn’t have fixed guideways, but it is a fairly highly level utilized a rail line. And then additionally, we completed one of the extension. So long story short about three quarters of the program is complete, but RTD currently has very limited financial capacity to finish the remaining projects, at least for the next 20 plus years, the remaining projects do not qualify for federal capital grant funds.
Debra Johnson (4m 28s):
So they will have to be locally funded as we stand today. RTD basically is over leveraged. In the sense we have limited ability to operate the service that exists. And what’s interesting about this, is we more or less as we went forward, it was a great program, but recognizing the great recession and Sue during the course of this program, then we have the pandemic. And so all of this holistically we’ve more or less had focused our attention on adding on to our house, adding on new rooms, but where we stand today is really looking at our current dwelling and trying to ensure that we don’t have a dilapidated roof, that we don’t have a plumbing problem that we’re really fixated on the house in which we’re living in currently.
Debra Johnson (5m 16s):
And so one thing’s for certain, as it relates to our program as relates to key stakeholders and recognizing this initiative was passed back in 2004, there are a lot of people that feel as if we haven’t made good on our promise in relationship to bringing this program full circle. And so right now, collectively, we’re trying to graph the short and long-term financial constraints, not to mention that we have an operator shortage is no news to anybody tuning into this because the whole world more or less is basically short-staffed currently. So we really have a laser focus on, you know, bringing back service to pre COVID levels and looking to do that probably at 85% of what the levels were pre pandemic.
Debra Johnson (6m 2s):
So with that, I’ll yield the floor to my colleague to address their capital program. So thank you. Thank you, Deborah. Peter, love to hear about you and what’s going on at sound transit.
Peter Rogoff (6m 14s):
Well, really quite a lot is going on. We are in and about the business of moving forward on the largest Transit Expansion program in America. We sometimes get into a rhetorical argument with our colleagues at LA Metro as to whose program is larger. But in fact, on the transit only portion, ours is larger. It’s really quite exciting because we just started really the beginning of a series of openings. We have a very ambitious plan funded by the voters over, over multiple ballot measures. The most recent ones being in 2008, and then our largest by far in 2016 has launched us on a capital program now that some $70 billion large funded by the voters and the taxes will continue until the projects as adopted by the voters are built.
Peter Rogoff (7m 7s):
We have an obligation when the voters adopt a project to continue to collect the taxes and build them. So we are, we are structured somewhat different from agencies that might have a project on the books and might actually find themselves short of the funding to, to, to build them. Why I say we’re at a beginning of a really exciting set of roll-outs is just just a few weeks ago. We not having had a grand opening for five years. We had back when I first arrived here in 2016, we first opened our U length extension extending light rail up to the university of Washington, and also simultaneously moved our light rail spine to the south to angle lake south of the airport.
Peter Rogoff (7m 50s):
And we already connected to the airport, but then we were about the business, really getting new projects in the ground and under construction. So we hadn’t had an opening for five years until October 3rd, when we opened up our north gate extension. And what’s really exciting about the extensions we’re building now is even as we open up new service, we are already in construction on extending it yet further. So we will nearly triple our light rail mileage in just the next three years. Next year in 2022, we will take a very short segment of light rail down in Tacoma and extended up to the medical facilities and up to what’s called the Hilltop residential community and really turn it into something quite viable and, and, and much more useful to the residents and, and, and employees of the city of Tacoma.
Peter Rogoff (8m 41s):
The following year, we’ll open up the Eastlink project, which is probably the most transformative of all the projects that we’re building. It is our second line that runs east west, and we’ll run out to Mercer island, Bellevue and Redmond to the campus. We will open up 10 stations overnight in 2023 with that extension. And then the year after that is, is, is so dense with exciting openings that I, I truly worry about how we’re going to do three of them in one year, but in 2024, we are due to extend all the way south to what’s called the federal way, Washington in south king county, all the way north from the north gate extension that we just opened with four more stops all the way up to Linwood in Snohomish county.
Peter Rogoff (9m 29s):
And then finally in Redmond will extend from the Microsoft campus to downtown Redmond. Two more stops there. And like I said, it’ll result in us almost tripling our light rail network in just the next three years. So it’s exciting to now be in this cadence of, of delivering additional service to the public. They’ve been very patient. They’ve been paying the taxes all this time. They’ve been seeing all the construction wondering, it looks like there’s a track way built, how come we can’t have service in six months? And what they don’t appreciate is that’s fine, but there’s no electrical grid yet the stations aren’t built out yet, everything hasn’t been tested, we’re taking delivery of new rail cars.
Peter Rogoff (10m 11s):
So we’re, we’re on a roll and we’re very excited about it. We obviously are, are facing some headwinds as, as it relates to the impacts of COVID, but I’ve been really proud of, of how we have been able to stay in construction. There was at the worst of the COVID pandemic. And please remember that, you know, the first impact was here in Seattle, Washington and its neighboring areas before it spread to the rest of the country. There was an iteration where the governor was looking to shut down all construction. And we benefited from a really good working relationship with our building trades unions in the labor movement to figure out a way to do construction safely with regular testing and oversight on our construction work, such that we stayed in construction, even when almost everything else was shutting down, we were able to continue to do work.
Peter Rogoff (11m 4s):
It took a lot of oversight. We did in fact, shut one of our construction vendors down and told them that they, you know, observed that they were not following their own COVID protocols and shut down all the work and got them restarted. And then they became one of our, our best contractors in following COVID protocols as a region, we’re very fortunate that the voters have entrusted us to build this out. The community is still very enthusiastic about it, wanting these extensions yesterday, the enthusiasm that just came with opening, these three stations to the north has shown that folks, you know, we’ll ride when we build and deliver it. So, you know, we are in a very positive place and, and very optimistic about the future.
Adelee Le Grand (11m 48s):
No, that’s great to hear. And one takeaway I wrote down is three by three, three times the size of your system in three years. So that’s pretty impressive here in Tampa at the Hillsborough transit authority, you know, we had a great program, a great capital program that we were looking to advance. And when I became the CEO in January, the word on the street was everyone was trying to figure out how the Supreme court was going to rule on a referendum that passed by the voters. However, the Supreme court was looking at the case to determine if the way the referendum was presented was unconstitutional. The beginning of this calendar year, they ruled and said it was unconstitutional.
Adelee Le Grand (12m 31s):
So the program which people were excited about similar to your fast track, Debra and your program, Peter, you know, it went from being a great, exciting opportunity for the Tampa bay region to start building out projects, to really putting our pencils down and figuring out how retool and retooling is something that we know a lot about in the transit space, but it’s difficult when a community comes together and votes to support an effort and they feel like it’s going to go forward. And then you get told afterwards that, you know, even though you voted and it passed by over 57%, the Supreme court, the state Supreme court is saying it’s unconstitutional.
Adelee Le Grand (13m 12s):
And today we’ve generated $250 million from that referendum, but it can’t be spent. So I thought this out to just ask the next question to you, both of you, you know, the impacts of COVID and the changes and the challenges that we face. I know Deborah, you said that even before the pandemic, you had some challenges, right? You were over committed, you know, how do we advance a program that the community supported? And now you’re telling them that within the next couple of decades, it’ll take us, you know, to get the money and be able to, as you said, take care of our Colombia, making sure we’re doing everything we can do with the resources recurrently have before we can put on our addition, if you will.
Adelee Le Grand (13m 53s):
And then Peter for you, since you’re moving forward, like gangbusters, how do you, you know, look at the future, the tax space as a pandemic in any way challenging the dollars that you’re calculating that you’ll have, or have you seen that the economy, your tech space has remained the same during this pandemic period. So I’ll start with you Debra, and then we’ll go to you.
Debra Johnson (14m 17s):
Okay. So thank you very much. Adelee very good questions. So if anything, as we talk about where we are currently and the expectation of voters, it’s, it’s being highly communicative and showcasing what we’re able to do going forward, and nobody could, you know, basically foresee the pandemic in a sense. And what I mean by that is the residual impacts that we have all suffered as transit leaders in the industry holistically. And I think now at this juncture, we have to step back and ensure that we’re communicating in such a way. So we really can garner a better understanding from our customer pain points, as well as ours as relates to what we can deliver.
Debra Johnson (14m 58s):
So with that, as a backdrop, recognizing that we made this commitment as relates to projects, there’s one in particular, in which there appears to be this high level of interest in, and it is a commuter rail line going up to Boulder county. And with that, that one project was never fleshed out in the sense of having a clear cut, understanding about what it may appear to be relative to boardings, how we could work with the freight railroad in reference to leasing the track and things along those lines. So when I first came into the organization and I was doing my listening tour, I heard that constantly, that we’d been paying into the system and we have not received what it is that we should.
Debra Johnson (15m 43s):
And so with that basically took the opportunity to garner a better understanding by meeting with elected officials along that project alignment, and then more so as well with staff along that project alignment, coupled with individuals on my team, both in planning and capital programs. And what we have decided to do with the support of the board is basically get a common set of facts. So as we move forward, what will be the cost? What we, what could we do for just peak rail service along that corridor? The board just authorized us to do that in April so we can make informed decisions as we go forward. More specifically, as we talk about where we are post pandemic, one thing’s for certain that we learned here is that our bus network really was the workforce of our transportation network outside of our commuter rail line.
Debra Johnson (16m 36s):
That goes from one intermodal hub to another specifically speaking Denver union station, which is our flagship intermodal hub here within downtown Denver. The, a line runs directly to the airport and recognizing the Denver international is one of the busiest airports in the entire world. We saw ridership more or less remain constant. And so we only saw ridership reductions on that route or that line, I would say probably about 30 to 40% in comparison to our other routes. So as we go forward, what we’re really trying to do is leverage our core system. I E the bus network investing, and then also stepping back recognizing that a lot of our capital programs came on all around the same time.
Debra Johnson (17m 22s):
Getting back to my analogy I used earlier, we need to ensure that we are keeping our assets in the state of foot repair. So that’s where we have landed at this juncture, recognizing that our core service, our service levels had been reduced during the course of the pandemic. So we could shore up our bottom line and we’re seeing a gradual gradual increase and service. And right now we’re about seven 70% service delivery levels. However, we’re only about 50% ridership levels. So we still have an opportunity going forward. And I think basically as we look to see what people are doing with telecommuting, we want to ensure that we’re able to pivot.
Debra Johnson (18m 3s):
But needless to say that now we’re facing labor shortages as well. So while we do have some of these constraints, we have partnered from a capital perspective with a couple of jurisdictions, specifically, as we look at bus rapid transit, and we do have a partnership with the city and county of Denver, and we have a project that is coming full circle. It’s on the largest contiguous business Porter in the country. And it’s our most heavily used ridership line, which is the Colfax four-door. And what we were able to do is have the city and county of Denver to provide the local match in reference to FTA small stars. So that’s something that we’re focused on right now, in addition to another project in the Northern part of our region, which is a bus rapid transit line, connecting a Boulder and the city’s a Longmont and Boulder county.
Debra Johnson (18m 54s):
I think that rounds out my response to that question. So thank you very much. Adelee okay.
Adelee Le Grand (18m 58s):
Thank you, Debra and Peter, the text-based has that been impacted at all by COVID and if not, you know, what impacts have you seen if any coming out of this pandemic?
Peter Rogoff (19m 9s):
Well, we’ve seen a ton of impacts and they weren’t necessarily the ones that we expected. The first, you, you you’ve talked about tax base, to be honest, we started out, we have an obligation under state law. When we conclude that the program that we put before the voters is not affordable to deliver the projects and the timeframe in which they were played before. The voters that the board, our board of directors, which is 17 elected officials, plus the transportation secretary for the state, they must convene and realign the program to one that they know to be affordable.
Peter Rogoff (19m 49s):
And we just concluded that after a 17 month process and it was painful and what it largely involved, there was absolutely no projects that were left on the cutting room floor. Like I said, the expectations that all the projects will be built, the only issue is how much time it will take to build, therefore had to serve up some, some sobering news to the voters who, like I said, really want many of these projects tomorrow and certain projects that were slated to be delivered in 2030 are now being delivered in 2030 to certain that were certain ones that were in 2035 and 20, 36 may could get pressed out to 2041, but the board of directors and the agency is really going to progress to plan those projects as if we’re going to build them on time.
Peter Rogoff (20m 40s):
Well, why are we doing that one just as we’ve seen an impact on revenues and government spending in this area that may not have been what we expected. It may change again. And for the better, obviously with the Biden administration talking about an infrastructure bill and some $8 billion in capital investment grant dollars put into that draft bill, we have been very entrepreneurial as an agency and trying to maximize federal assistance for our program. We have two full funding grant agreements with the FTA. Now we’re also the nation’s largest TIFIA borrower, not just among transit agencies, but among all transportation entities, right at the, when I first got here in 2016, I, I secured a master credit agreement for four different TIFIA loans, totalling $2 billion.
Peter Rogoff (21m 34s):
And we’ve just now we finance that package and have grown our TIFIA borrowings even further. So we want to stay nimble and have the ability to deliver projects on time. Should the circumstances allow that? So we are progressing projects at least through the planning phase and getting records of decisions. So we can move out on them if we can either leverage additional local money from our state Capitol command, additional federal money from an infrastructure bill, all of those things that, that, that, that kind of keep us moving forward. I will say, you know, in other regards, when I said things, didn’t the impacts weren’t necessarily what we expected.
Peter Rogoff (22m 18s):
We began the pandemic fearing that we were going to be losing billions of dollars in tax revenue. Actually, the opposite has happened revenues over the last year actually came in over budget. And we sometimes attribute this to everyone, just spending a lot of money on consumer goods while locked in at home sales tax is a very large portion of the largest portion of our tax base, just in terms of the economics of the region. Even during the pandemic population route here in the greater Seattle area and tech firms continue to expand, but not just the tech economy where we started fearing about lost revenues and what that was going to do to our capital program.
Peter Rogoff (23m 7s):
The thing that really required us to realign our capital program and slowed projects down were project costs. As we did a new and updated projections of what the projects were going to cost to get in the ground, we discovered a variety of things. The biggest and most profound impact was something that was not a surprise in that is the cost of property around here continues to skyrocket. And as an agency that must pay fair market value for every square inch of property we procure. Yeah, we have condemnation authority, but that just authorizes you to pay someone fair market value. Well, that fair market value continues to go and up and up. So that was, that was a wake up call.
Peter Rogoff (23m 50s):
We also discovered that the cost estimating method, you know what, currently we were over the course of the last year in construction on eight separate major capital projects at the same time, seven of them were on budget and on schedule. One was not because when we ripped up the streets to come well, we discovered the utilities weren’t where they were supposed to be. But importantly, the cost estimating methodology that we were using actually served us well for this generation of projects, but that next generation of projects where we’re building into more intensely urbanized areas, it did not serve us well. And we underestimated the cost of some projects, and that was, you know, very unpleasant news to the board and the public.
Peter Rogoff (24m 36s):
And really we did solve for about a six and a half billion dollar funding fold by delaying some of those projects. But the overwhelming majority of that funding foal was not about revenues, but was about costs. Part of that is related to the fact that the competitive environment here is a sellers market. We’ve still got all tons of cranes in the sky, in and around the greater Seattle area. And they extend up to up to Snohomish county, down to Pierce county. It’s not a great time to be bidding out work in terms of getting really good competitive prices. You know, no one wants a recession, but one thing that was for certain during the 2008, 2009 recession is bids were coming in very competitively because contractors wanted to keep making payments on their leased equipment and keeping their people employed.
Peter Rogoff (25m 25s):
We are in the opposite circumstance. Now contractors are struggling to get skilled craftspeople, to be able to come and do the work. And that is having its impact on pricing. A lot of changes just in the, in terms of our capital program. The other big change, obviously that came during the pandemic was a real wake up call, not just for sound transit, but I think for the entire industry, in terms of who, who continued to ride transit and who didn’t our obligation as a federal grantee and as a public citizen funded with public dollars to serve the transit dependent communities first. And we like so many other cities across the country can look at the heat maps of who continued to ride what bus routes and what rail routes and overlay communities of color, where essential workers and low and middle income communities are located and see who continued to ride.
Peter Rogoff (26m 21s):
And that, I think, like I said, was an important wake up call, not just for us, but the entire industry. And as we grow services back, we are bringing that equity focus of what communities need us the most in terms of how quickly we add service back and in what intensity. So that was another big change that, that COVID presented. And I think a good one that, that also played into that realigned program when the board was deciding which projects could be slowed in which couldn’t, which communities really need the transit service the most also entered into their Thanks. So Peter,
Adelee Le Grand (26m 57s):
You, you shared a lot
Peter Rogoff (27m 1s):
Adelee Le Grand (27m 1s):
And this is great. We get that the tax revenue was up, the construction costs are also up. And you talked a bit about, you know, understanding where your core base of writers are based on who needed to still ride transit during the pandemic. So I’m curious too, to hear from you with your program and the fact that a lot of the planning has been going on. I think you said starting in 2004 and in 2016, and where do you see the demand moving forward? You know, you talked about all the tech jobs that are coming online that even, you know, started coming online even more rapidly during the pandemic.
Adelee Le Grand (27m 42s):
Are these people working from home? And if so, are your projections for demand for your program? Have they been looked at, and are they staying consistent to what you projected back in 2004, the update in 2016, or are you seeing some sort of shift in your actual demand?
Peter Rogoff (28m 0s):
That’s a good question. And let me say that importantly, we were already seeing a shift before the pandemic. This is important. We were reaching our ridership projections in their totality, but the mix of those riders was not as was originally envisioned, which is to say, I think initially it was projected that we would have more of your kind of classic nine to five commuter pattern riders on our, especially on our light rail system. And what we discovered is the ridership was there or exceeded those numbers, but there were a lot more spread out during the day.
Peter Rogoff (28m 41s):
And I think that is from a variety of factors. One, several law, the universities around here, and we’re going to serve more with our extensions, the university students. And for that out of university workers are traveling at all times of the day. We serve the airport, airport workers, or, you know, as not to mention passengers are coming in at all times of the day, a lot more folks in the gig economy and a lot more people in with very flexible work hours. I’ve got a 23 year old son who is a tech worker for one of the major tech firms around here. He’s a production engineer. It drives me positively crazy. What workout is.
Peter Rogoff (29m 21s):
He keeps, he has the flexibility to frankly, do whatever he wants during the day. And then he’ll be on his screen from 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM because that’s what suits him and his employer has absolutely no problem with that. And I think there’s a lot more likely out there. And so in terms of where he wants to move around and where he wants to go, it provides some real flexibility. Plus the other thing let’s remember, you know, when we talk about essential workers, folks who are working, going up to UWA hospital, another facility that we serve through light rail, that’s a 24 hour operation, right? Those, you know, no one’s working nine to five at the hospital.
Peter Rogoff (30m 3s):
And so we just need to recognize that the so-called bankers hours model I think is falling away and it’s going to that, that trend is going to, you know, accelerate because of COVID and the possible opportunities for telecommuting. But it’s very interesting. What’s going on. The tech companies around here are both offering their employees greater flexibility and continuing to invest in office space. Microsoft is doing a multi-billion dollar expansion of their campus out of Redmond. We will serve them with light rail in 2023. When I talked about going out to the east side, rather than downtown Seattle, the 10 stations we will open on on east link.
Peter Rogoff (30m 48s):
Google is moving a lot of work to Kirkland. Facebook has bought an entire campus in what’s called the bell, read the Bellevue to retina corridor, right adjacent to one of our stations. Amazon is building a series of high rise towers that they intend to occupy all themselves. One of which is going to be tech all within a couple of blocks of our new stops and Bellevue. Really the, the tech firms are critically interested in when we’re actually going to open in 2023, because they want to time the movement of their office spaces to when we opened. So both things are going on at the same time. Now I think companies are hedging a little bit because no one really knows where this is going to head in terms of the ratio of remote work to in-office work.
Peter Rogoff (31m 36s):
But right now I remain optimistic about the future. I really don’t at least around here, this whole idea that tele commuting is going to cause the whole rationale behind our transit expansions to be called into question. I don’t see it. We’re also in a region where people care a lot about the climate we’re in Jay is Lee state. There’s all kinds of imperatives to get people out of cars and into public transit. We run, we were identified as the first light rail system in the U S running entirely carbon free because we obtain all of our energy for light rail from me that our hydro power wind power.
Peter Rogoff (32m 16s):
And we’re very proud of that. And there are people here who will write us for just that reason. So I think that the, the imperatives to build out a system like ours for the climate alone is, will be adequate justification. But quite frankly, I think people are still going to be taking us to sporting events, to hospitals, to shopping and, and enjoying the benefits of getting out of a car. The ratios may be different on what types of writers we’re serving, but there’s still going to be plenty of writers to serve
Adelee Le Grand (32m 51s):
Well, thank you, Peter. And, you know, Deborah representing the regional transit district in Colorado, similar types of folks who are interested in the climate and the environment, I would say. And we’ll, you also discussed having 50% of your ridership that you have prior to the pandemic, as well as the fact Peter mentioned this, and it’s just definitely accurate. The industry has been talking about this for awhile. Transit ridership has been on a decline prior to, so when you’re looking at the demand after COVID recognizing that there was a little, I would say downturn prior to COVID, how are you addressing your demand currently?
Adelee Le Grand (33m 32s):
And what are you projecting for increased demand in the near future?
Debra Johnson (33m 36s):
Well, thank you very much. That’s a very good question. If anything, recognizing that hybrid working is going to be here to stay. In my opinion, we also have to factor in where people are wanting to go and sure there’s flexibility with work hours and things of alive, but there’s also activities sentences that qualify them. You know, those that are teleworking still, you know, crave that humor and human interaction. So they want to go to the theater. They want to go to a sporting event. They want to go to, you know, a concert. And so with that, what we have seen thus far that we’d had greater ridership on the weekends for people to access those types of events, recognizing we just hosted in July the major league baseball ArtStar game.
Debra Johnson (34m 27s):
We saw a lot of ridership because we basically are providing services to access these venues and more so as people come out of their homes as well, you know, to get to doctor’s appointments, to the point that Peter raised getting the medical facilities, we serve as our light rail line and our bus routes, we serve as the university of Colorado and Schultz medical center. So people are utilizing those places to get to where they need to go when they need to get there. And recognizing that those aren’t the traditional banking hours as well. So what we’re really doing is stepping back, trying to discern from a flexibility and agility point of view is when do we need to ramp up to ensure that we have adequate rail cars for our concepts?
Debra Johnson (35m 11s):
Do we have, you know, enough buses serving, you know, various routes and also recognizing that we have essential service workers as well, looking at our customer base to discern where might they be traveling? And we have seen within our core system in the urban ISED areas within Denver ended up that itself. That’s where we really see the ridership. So quite naturally, when we did the reduction in service, back in April of 2020, we did a service equity analysis. And we’re using that as our guide post, as well as we make informed decisions about how we add back service. Additionally, what we’re doing is working in partnership with different business associations and things of the, like, as we look at people converging upon the employment sites, recognizing that the capacity may not be what it was prior to the pandemic.
Debra Johnson (36m 3s):
People are gearing up. And I have heard from some individuals there, they’re looking to hire more people, but quite naturally, they’re going to have people coming at a different time. So they need additional space. And so while they may not have a hundred percent of their workforce in a building, they will have 50 to 75% of them over the course of the week. So we have to be adequately prepared to deliver those services. And basically what we’re doing in that vein is going out to where the people are to learn or better understanding of their pain points. So we’ll be ready and available to deliver the services they need when they do feel comfortable, comfortable enough to pop back on transit.
Adelee Le Grand (36m 43s):
So I’m Debra, thank you for that. And, you know, use bird, another question for me and I’m going to, you know, date myself and I’m going to consider ourselves, I hope you guys are fine with this, but we’re all old school, right? And Peter, I know you go back to the ice tea days. So that’s not a rapper for those of you who are doing your research and find out why Peter is associated with him was not a rapper, but here you go, that that’d be, we’ll give out a prize revolution. Staff would give you a prize if you know the answer to that. But you know, back in the day, we would talk about home-based work trips, right? Anytime you were trying to figure out if your project, it was going to make it to the next level, there was really to calculate the home-based work trips.
Adelee Le Grand (37m 28s):
And it sounds like really what we’re talking about now is a shift to the home base, other trips, right? So when we look at that and recognizing historically, or traditionally we’ve designed our routes, we put our system plans together. We even allocate our resources based on the pullout and the hours. We’re going to have operators operating really based on this am PM peak coverage period. How is this shift impacting or how do you, how do you envision this shift impacting the way you actually deliver service? Will there be an impact, do you think it’ll just, you know, not be an issue, but I’m curious to hear from both of you, do you envision any impacts associated with the shift, Go to you, Deborah and then to Peter?
Debra Johnson (38m 13s):
Yeah. Thank you very much for that question. Adelee I do see a different way in reference to scheduling and so forth because for all intents and purposes, I’ve been in this industry for 30 years, we talked about you’re only good as your last rush hour, right? And so now recognizing that a rush hour is in what we knew it to be a couple of decades ago. So as we look at leveraging different blocks and runs, as we do service planning, we have to ensure that we’re providing enough flexibility to put gap trains in place, to have additional buses readily and available for pull-out, as we garner a better understanding of where we’re going, what we’re doing going forward.
Debra Johnson (38m 54s):
So that may be having, you know, a larger extra board when you’re delivering transit services as well. So I think what we’re doing, I don’t think I know what we’re doing at this juncture is basically assessing those trips and recognizing that people still aren’t back in the office in reference to what we projected them to be in the sense of what the Delta Berrien and the adverse impacts. I think at this juncture, it’s causing us to be very flexible and agile and work in tandem with our union partners as well, recognizing that we may have to do a shift. And in some contractual agreements, you may have a service change, you know, twice, three times a year, or what have you, but it’s basically having that flexibility.
Debra Johnson (39m 35s):
So we can quickly pivot as we discern what that pattern may be. Because for certain I’m confident in my remarks and saying that it’s not going to be what it was. And as we look forward, recognizing that before we could put out a bus stop flag and a poll and say, okay, we’re going to pick you up here. We clearly see with the advent of micro transit and on demand services, that that’s not the model that we need to leverage. So as we look at ourselves as an industry, we have to be open to new ideas and creative ideas and solutions to ensure that we’re providing that service in the manner in which our customers need, because mobility is key. It gets people to where they need to go and unleashes them from their limitations.
Debra Johnson (40m 16s):
But we on the back end of all of that, have to be willing and able to lean into that, to provide the services that they need. So we are going to have to be flexible from our service planning, vantage point. Most definitely. Thank you. And Peter, any impacts you see on your end?
Peter Rogoff (40m 30s):
Well, I’m going to echo a good bit of what Deborah said to my mind. The key word here is reliability and reliability plays itself into service planning and headway is we had gotten into a model where we were accepting of very tight headways and very frequent service to fill those bankers hours employees. And I still expect that we’re going to still have peaks and off peaks, but we really need to be mindful of the level of service where we’re providing in those, those off-peak areas. And frankly, the emergence from COVID period might be the best real life example of what a more spread out off peak period would would, would look like.
Peter Rogoff (41m 18s):
And we found that in that old chicken and egg thing, you wait for the passengers to come back before you add the service back, or do you add the service back because then you’re providing something reliable that will Tice the passengers back. We are blessed with sufficient financial resources that we could add the service back and entice the writers to us. And it worked. And to a large degree, we had gotten into a really bad place where we were doing 30 minute headways on peak live rail, which is just it’s, it’s bad service from our perspective in terms, and, and we’ve been able to now move back to, you know, the, the least frequent headways are 15 minutes off peak.
Peter Rogoff (42m 2s):
And that is, and I’d love to do better in terms of folks knowing that, you know, there’s going to be another train every 10 minutes. And that, that includes, you know, the evening entertainment hours early mornings. And we may get back to that at some point. But I think if we are to recognize that we’re serving essential workers who need to be moving around at all hours, as well, as well as choice riders who choose to ride around at all hours, then providing some kind of reasonable reliability and, and, and, and not have service that is so infrequent as to not be, be worth it.
Peter Rogoff (42m 47s):
You know, you talked earlier, Adelee about declining ridership and some people associated that with the advent of Uber and Lyft and how convenient that that came. Well, I’m noticing two things around here. That’s notable one traffic is coming back. You know, when people ask me why the number one reason why voters here voted themselves a very sizable tax increase for expanded trap for expanded transit here in 2016. The number one reason I give is because traffic here at more than doubled in just six years to a level that people are not accustomed to in the Puget sound region and more than anything else, they wanted to path out of traffic.
Peter Rogoff (43m 31s):
But the other thing, in addition to traffic coming back that I’m noticing is that my wife and I happened to go out for a celebratory evening. The other day, we had our 25th wedding anniversary. We didn’t want to drive. And I finally, for the first time, really in many, many, many, many months priced out a Lyft or Uber ride. And boy, is it different that, you know, Uber and Lyft is finally getting around to wanting to show a profit and the pricing has adjusted accordingly. And I think the mix of folks on transit versus over Electra is inevitably going to change here. Again, I continue to be optimistic about the future. We are seeing different traffic patterns. We just need to be nimble enough in our regular practices.
Peter Rogoff (44m 13s):
Jennifer talked about perhaps having to revisit a collective bargaining agreement about how many service changes you can do in a year. That’s the kind of nimbleness that we’re going to have to demonstrate when we do maintenance. You know, we, we very much, we did not run all night and we do almost a huge portion of our maintenance on, on, on the light rail operation, as we do for the commuter rail operation in the middle of the night. Well, maybe we need to have more of those trains actually out on the line, serving people at those hours, which means we need to rethink how, and when we do maintenance, an industry that isn’t always famous for being nimble and learning to be even more nimble than we are.
Adelee Le Grand (44m 53s):
Yeah. Those are really good points. Both of you and Deborah mentioned, you know, the CVA, right. And really understanding the collective bargaining agreements that we have currently. And then how do we align being nimble with what’s in the contract? And I’m curious to hear from both of you, you know, do you, how difficult do you think it would be for us to go from where we are now to a place where we can actually have in a contract and have, you know, the bargaining units agree that we should have more dynamic scheduling, right. And being able to do some of these agile things we’re talking about in a way that we can be more responsive. I believe Peter, I wrote down that you said reliability is key, right?
Adelee Le Grand (45m 35s):
So when we determine, we all know about, you know, an analyzing routes and you see where there’s some challenges, but then you can make a little tweak, but you have to wait to the next markup or service change before you can do something significant. How can we be responsive to the community, be reliable, make quick changes, and also work with our CBAs and our unions to create right, the language where people are comfortable, that they’ll be protected because we want to do that. But also that we’re being responsive to the needs of the community. What are your thoughts here? And, you know, lots of people are listening in and the lots of us are grappling with that right now, even during the pandemic, you know, how you dealt with what was in the contract and how you can make some changes and it’s extended way beyond any of us thought.
Adelee Le Grand (46m 24s):
So I’d love to hear from both of you, you know, how are you dealing with this and what are your thoughts on what your thoughts are?
Debra Johnson (46m 32s):
So I would say I’m recognizing in the midst of the pandemic that we did, just that recognizing we had to make some adjustment levels and in relationship to reducing service from a financial Dan is pointed in recognizing that we didn’t have the ridership there that we previously had when that CBA was negotiated. So it’s being highly communicative and being a true partner with the union, you know, as cliche. And somebody said this to me at a different Transit property years ago, but it’s a play on words, but you can’t spell union without you. And I, and I think if anything, as we talk about the service delivery components of that, if we don’t have our customers, then there’s no need for our employees and there certainly no need for me.
Debra Johnson (47m 15s):
And so as we go down this path, it’s basically talking about what may be best suited because what we had outlined previously worked for that time period, as we talked about having the peak periods, having off peak. So it’s engaging to garner a better understanding about how we best can deliver service. And I think it’s rolling up our sleeves and engaging in that as we go forward, because recognizing what we used to do decades ago, as related to the, the relationship we may have had with our union partners, it has changed in the pandemic, has taught us that because we both need one another in the sense of ensuring that we deliver servers, but we cannot be remiss in the point that the only reason why they’re union members are because they’re employees of our organization.
Debra Johnson (48m 3s):
So when we approach it from that vantage point and try to work collaboratively around mitigating that and having more realistic schedules and to the point that Peter raised about reliability, I think that’s the first step in the direction in which we need to take to help overcome some of these challenges as we go forward. Thank you, Debra Peter, any thoughts?
Peter Rogoff (48m 22s):
Well, just a couple, you know, this is not about how we might want to change something in the future because we are, we are struggling now. We contract for our drivers with other public agencies. So our sound transit buses are actually all driven by either king county, Metro Pierce transit, or community transit drivers, driving a sound transit bus, and our partners are struggling to retain enough drivers. It’s sort of a mirror of what we’re seeing in terms of all kinds of industries, struggling to obtain an adequate supply of labor to turn out their service. So I’ve had a report to my board just in the last month.
Peter Rogoff (49m 3s):
You know, we congratulated ourselves in the service that we were adding back, and I just hope we can continue to add it based on, on what could be a supply shortage of drivers, critically interested in what’s happening in the next couple of days, we have a vaccine mandate at sound transit. So does king county Metro and community transit has a different one. And Pierce transit is waiting for OSHA to require it of them, but it’s anticipated folks who are going to lose some drivers that are already in short supply because of the vaccine mandate. So folks are very interested to see when the deadline comes and goes in the next couple of days, how many drivers are still on the roster?
Peter Rogoff (49m 45s):
All of that said, I think we really do need to work to, it needs to be a collective effort on both sides of the table to re-imagine the relationship somewhat. I talked about passengers wanting reliability while employees want reliability, too. And to Deborah’s point, they want to know that they have some job security and some of the older rules, you know, perhaps they don’t have this in, in, in Tampa or Denver county, Metro, it took forever to get a rule change that said that a new driver could only start part time, went back decades. Maybe it had a value or purpose back in the day.
Peter Rogoff (50m 25s):
It certainly doesn’t now and hampers their ability because you can’t even get, you know, get on as a driver for Boone county Metro under the old system and obtain a full living wage yet because you have to start part-time, you know, all of these issues that are kind of on the books and embedded in our processes that I think need to be re-imagined. But I think that the, the labor force will respond if we’re prepared to make commitments to them. And that’s not just wages, but also pensions healthcare and all the other things that they’re looking for. If we could provide some certainty for them, I think they, they will be understanding of the certainty that we need to bring to the passengers and how that could be a, a thing where that positively reinforces itself rather than, you know, it’s kind of a negative spiral.
Adelee Le Grand (51m 14s):
Those are very great points. You said, re-imagined the relationship. I don’t know if this is because you just hit 25 years of marriage, but we do need to re imagine the relationships right that we have with the union, with our administrative team and then with our community. And I would say lastly with our partners, you know, Debra, you mentioned partners, you called the union, our partners, but you know, Peter, when you talked about all this service that you’re building and how Amazon and Google and Microsoft, those are partners too, and we have to reimagine this relationship of all the partners and what we’re bringing to the table. So I’d like to hear from you guys, do you see a role for the private sector to really participate more fully on how we advance trans and recognizing all of the challenges that we’ve talked about over the last, you know, 40 minutes or so?
Adelee Le Grand (52m 5s):
And if so, what type of roles do you think we should all? And when I say all, all of us in the transit space be collectively advocating for, from the private sector. So I’ll start with you, Peter, cause you have the big boys in your town,
Peter Rogoff (52m 19s):
Frankly, the corporate community here for the most part is, is already participating in a big way. And I’ll tell you how I, I do believe we probably, so I don’t have actual data on this. I think we may be the major metropolitan area with the highest percentage of transit riders whose fair is being paid for by their employer. If you are a major employer in the Seattle Puget sound region, and you are not already giving your employees a free Orca card to ride transit, then you need to have a reason why, because most, almost all of the major employers do, and this isn’t just private sector employers, but the hospitals, the universities, it’s actually one of the things that sort of drives me crazy about this debate often from the political left for free fares, because in this particular region, the corporate community who many people on the left want to tax more, are already paying a very large chunk of at least operating costs to fairs for transit, by paying for free fares to their employees.
Peter Rogoff (53m 29s):
If we went to a free fair system, those companies would be completely alleviated to those millions and millions of dollars they spend on transit pairs. So it would be in that card, somewhat regressive rather than the progressive policy that people identify it as. But I think really importantly, we have that dynamic and, and I think credit goes to governor Inslee and his predecessors as part of a very aggressive, clean air commute reduction program. The state has where they set up entities to work with employers to make it really easy, to set up a system where they could contract with us to give free or capacity to their employees. And therefore there’s a great many folks here who are so in that regard, the corporations are already participating.
Peter Rogoff (54m 15s):
I will also tell you this, it doesn’t have to do is to just matter of public record. It’s not something that, that we do as a, as a taxpayer funded agency, but all of our dollars come to us via voter referenda and the corporate community. And, and you know, if you look at the largest donors to the campaigns to support the adoption of our ballot measures, the corporate partners, entities like Microsoft, Amazon, and others who are invested in there being good transit in this region as a way to entice employees among other things, they have been very large participants in the contributions necessary to get advertising on the air to help about measure pass.
Peter Rogoff (54m 60s):
So in that regard, they have been a partner, probably the other biggest way is really just to continue to entice their employees, to use transit. And they are doing that. I talked earlier about all of these companies that are building, you know, new headquarters and new buildings, right. Adjacent to our transit lines. The other thing that they’re doing is not building parking as part of those facilities and not necessarily providing free parking to their employees. When we open up our light rail to the Microsoft campus, I mean, people know about this. It’s still very big down in the San Francisco bay area, but we too here have a whole fleet of Microsoft buses that take employees from all over the region to one from the Microsoft campus.
Peter Rogoff (55m 46s):
A lot of those buses are going to go away when light rail opens because they are looking forward to having them delivered through our transit service, which frankly will be faster in our own designated right of way than on the congested highways. So they are already partnering with us. There’s probably more they can do, but it would be interesting to see if they were so interested in some of our extensions to help us finance them. But I will tell you just recently we have a very aggressive, affordable housing program to try to build affordable housing adjacent to our rail stops. We just negotiated a hundred million dollars in capital from Amazon to help expedite the deployment of metaphor, double housing adjacent to our transit station.
Peter Rogoff (56m 27s):
That was a hundred million dollars they did not need to part with, but will in order to, to be a good corporate citizen because affordable housing is such a critical need in this region. So I, I actually think my corporate partners are, are in the game here and they would, could serve as a good model for other parts of the country.
Adelee Le Grand (56m 46s):
I would agree. I would say the major takeaway from what you just shared with us is to engage, to have relationships and really leverage those relationships so that you can work collaboratively to find ways that your corporate sponsors can support what you’re doing. So definitely appreciate that insight and hopefully others appreciate it as well. We’re getting ready to close out. So I have a last question for both of you, I’ll start with Debra Debra. I’d like for you to share what are the largest opportunities that are facing the transit industry today?
Debra Johnson (57m 20s):
I think our largest opportunities are taking the lessons that we’ve learned throughout the course of this pandemic and being nimble as we go forward, as we talk about, you know, the travel patterns that are so paramount, which we talked about for, and then also as we talk about opportunities, this may be a challenge, but it’s an opportunity as well. It’s workforce we’ve often, you know, leverage people that have had driving experience and so forth, but we’re in a customer centric business. And so basically thinking in terms of let’s get people that are people in the people business, and we can teach somebody how to drive, but we can’t teach them to have the interpersonal skills.
Debra Johnson (57m 60s):
So as we go down this path trying to attract, and I understand where we are now, but the whole world is at a disadvantage as it relates to garnering team members. But collectively thinking outside of the norm, in the sense of how we go about getting our frontline transit employees, as we look at operators, as we look at maintainers and mechanics and so forth, let’s ensure that we can give people ample opportunities and leverage going forward different programs for development and things of the like working with, you know, community colleges and things along those lines. So we can basically develop a program so we can home grown home, grow rather our employees collectively.
Debra Johnson (58m 43s):
And I think also as we talk about where we are from a safety vantage point, there’s the perception with transit with people, you know, congregating in these, these, these small areas. As we know there hasn’t been one solid case that we have seen where transit has been, you know, a mass spreader of COVID. And so, as we talk about what we can do going forward, it’s changing our narrative. It’s creating our own story as we go full steam ahead. And I think that’s paramount as we want to entice people to get back on board our vehicles, and then ensuring that we do have a workforce it’s more geared toward the whole notion of being customer centric, because that’s paramount. As one gets on a vehicle, our frontline employees are helping to shape the opinions, perception, attitudes.
Debra Johnson (59m 28s):
And if we’re getting somebody that has come from an industry that in which they haven’t engaged in that same manner, that’s not going to be beneficial to us. If we’re taking somebody who was working previously, you know, moving cargo, they traditionally haven’t engaged with people. So I think those are where I see our opportunities.
Adelee Le Grand (59m 48s):
Thank you, Deborah. I like how you said we have to change the narrative. That is indeed what we need to do, Peter. And we’ll close out with you and I’d like to ask you, what do you see as our largest opportunities in the transit industry?
Peter Rogoff (1h 0m 2s):
It’s cliche to say our children are our future, but I really do believe the sensibilities of young people are going to a very positive future transit because the whole notion, you know, and I talk about the success in getting voters to common support transit in some very sizable tax increases, we get sound transit gets $0 from the state of Washington. Everything comes directly from a voter approved tax that the motor has to vote to tax themselves. But at the influx of young tech workers who don’t want to own a car and want to be able to move around the region freely is an important part of that voting block. And I think the combination of young people asking appropriate questions about what are we doing as stewards of the planet, given the imperatives of climate change is going to is changing the conversation in state capitals and the national Capitol about, you know, is transit just about getting people to and from work.
Peter Rogoff (1h 1m 5s):
We have a program here that I think, you know, credit really goes to our, our current outgoing mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, where she put up city money to give all those free Orca cards to every high school student and obviously was, was cost relieving, especially now in the school district is struggling to get bus drivers, but we serve a lot of high school kids who, who ride from free because during the school year, their Orca card is free courtesy of the city. Well, now there’s talk about perhaps extending that to middle-schoolers and as much as being on a rail car full of high schoolers, the middle schoolers can be kinda loud.
Peter Rogoff (1h 1m 49s):
It is nonetheless how we train people to use transit the next generation of transit users. And I think the combination of younger people getting accustomed to using Transit as well as calling for cleaner alternatives. I think that really is the energy we need to tap into. And it’s a very important part of our, our positive future.
Adelee Le Grand (1h 2m 11s):
Well, thank you. You made me smile as a new Yorker who was on public transit from elementary school, making a whole lot of noise as an adult. I not, I do not want to be on that bus at that time, but you’re right. I knew how to ride the system as a six-year-old. So I want to thank both of you for engaging this morning. It was a great conversation. I enjoyed it. I’m sure those, if you were listening in had a great time, lots of great opportunities we have today in the transit industry, we have some challenges, but we have the right people, leading organizations to find solutions for those challenges. It really now’s the time for us to focus on the opportunity.
Adelee Le Grand (1h 2m 51s):
So thank you for giving me this opportunity to moderate this session and thank you all of you watching today for participating and registering to participate in a Railvolution conference.
Jeff Wood (1h 3m 9s):
And thanks for joining us. The Talking Headways podcast is a project of the Overhead Wire and posted first at Streetsblog USA.