Editor’s Note: The following is MARTA Deputy General Manager A.R. “Rob” Troup’s April 26, 2018 complete luncheon address at the annual Railway Age/Railway Track & Structures Light Rail Conference in Baltimore. The text is interspersed with photos from the Transit Tour provided by Maryland MTA of its LRT system and shops.
I’ll start with a riddle: What do Johnny Cash and light rail have in common? They’ve been everywhere, man, they’ve been everywhere! Light rail’s been to:
Jersey City, Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, LA, Cincinnati, Philly, DC, Detroit, Dallas, Denver, Boston, Austin, Camden, Charlotte, Portland, Cleveland, Tampa, Atlanta, Houston, Tucson, Tacoma, Kenosha, Saint Paul, Little Rock, Norfolk, Newark, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Phoenix, Tempe, St. Louie, Milwaukee, San Jose, San Diego, Frisco, Paso, Escondido, Sacramento and Seattle!
Light rail’s been everywhere!
What is also interesting is that the majority of these systems have been built in the past 20 years! Right now, there are six or seven lines currently under construction. Of course, I recognize “under construction” is a relative term. I once asked four engineers what “under construction” meant, and I got seven different answers.
Light rail is not exclusively geographic or limited to size of city. It is not even based on the same determining factors from city to city, but there is one common platform: It drives growth! Growth in economy, in real estate, in viable transportation options, in sustainability and in equity.
Why the renaissance? We need not look any further than out the window here. Baltimore has been a leader in creative methods to encourage economic growth in depressed areas—“old style” stadiums, waterfront development and a transportation system that links it all together.
I remember the Baltimore waterfront back in the ’70s. I worked Amtrak’s rail gang as a laborer and slept in camp cars parked in Orangeville Yard, which is just a short hop up the tracks from here.
This is where we would come at night to drink and fight—and while you can still find a great place to get a drink, they don’t look too kindly on the fighting part anymore, and, quite frankly I don’t think I’d fare too well anymore in at least one of those activities.
Cities look to other cities to see what works. How many “old style” stadiums have been constructed since Camden Yards? How many cities have developed waterfront—just up I-95, Wilmington has significant waterfront development from what I remember used to be empty factories and rusty dock cranes. Why is that? Because of the success that preceded in Baltimore!
Think about that next time you’re planning or constructing or operating a light rail line. You are serving a community beyond your own. Each of those cities I mentioned, when selling the investment of light rail in their city, would showcase successful projects that preceded them. Every proposal I have looked at for implementation of light rail has photos and descriptions of implementation in a city of similar size—strong defensible numbers that show positive community support and a return on investment, because that is what this is: an investment in a city’s population.
Again, investment in permanent infrastructure! Developers don’t want tent stakes! They look for concrete foundations. Light rail represents a city’s commitment to an investment that is not so easily abandoned.
Few government-supported initiatives have such a comprehensive footprint when building equity and growth. Light rail establishes a broader tax base, real estate development, job growth and viable transportation options for underserved populations.
What a great time for me to be in Atlanta and what a fantastic time to be working at MARTA. Former CEO Keith Parker and his team did a remarkable job of creating a financially sound organization that was accountable, in a state of good repair and proved its worth to the community. The new CEO, Jeff Parker (no relation), has the knowledge, expertise and dedicated personnel to make the expansion initiatives a reality while maintaining that same accountability, community outreach and a renewed focus on customer service.
The Atlanta region supports MARTA. Consider the past two referendums that passed regarding the sales tax increases in Clayton County and the City of Atlanta.
These passed by more than 70%, and considering that three out of ten people will vote against anything the government puts forward—I mean, even giving puppies to orphans—I consider 70% to be indicative of full support!
The Atlanta Streetcar is up and running and soon to be operated by MARTA as part of our suite of services. We have high-capacity transit and multiple bus service route initiatives planned to bring a larger footprint of non-automobile transportation options to the region. We are generating specific funding through these tax referendums that will make expansion a reality—repeat, a reality—and we have an amazing TOD (transit-oriented development) footprint and active construction around our rail stations.
Most recently, the State of Georgia passed HB 930, which is sweeping legislation that creates a new regional transit authority, referred to as “The Atlanta Transit Link” or “The ATL,” which will manage planning, governance and funding covering as many as 13 metro counties.
The legislation allows counties not currently part of MARTA to have the option of opting into the new ATL for up to a one-cent referendum. The exception is Gwinnett County, which has the opportunity to join MARTA if there is a positive vote in 2018. If the vote occurs after 2018, it will be to authorize funding through the ATL.
With the legislation, it is important to note that MARTA remains completely intact and retains full autonomy over its planning, funding and governance structure. Pursuit of federal funding for expansion projects that are on our engineering report by the beginning of this coming December will be retained and controlled by MARTA. Additionally, we will be the designated operator for all existing and any future rail service across the ATL region. The ATL will become the designated recipient for all federal formula funding.
This legislation is clearly in support of integrating regional transportation, with public transit being an integral component of the overall plan—support made possible by the success of MARTA.
MARTA has high-capacity transit planned for various corridors, much of which is light rail or streetcar. Clifton Corridor is a light rail option using portions of CSX right-of-way that will link our Avondale Station and Lindbergh Transit Center. In addition, Atlanta has planned an entire network of connecting light rail lines that could be part of our “More MARTA” initiatives.
We are successful in Atlanta because of the dedication of our employees and Board and the jurisdictional support from our elected officials. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Amazon HQ2 will find its way to Atlanta!
Speaking about light rail, one of the main reasons it is so attractive to us is because the regulatory environment surrounding environmental studies, federal funding mechanisms, and procurement and construction regulations is so easily navigated and implemented.
When we talk about the regulatory environment, we need to start with the basis that we are custodians of public funds, and we need to be held to a very high standard for accountability. It is critical that we don’t lose the trust of the public we serve.
However, consider for a moment Uber—creation of an international ride service company with multi-billions of dollars of assets at their disposal, of which they have no liability. This is the environment we are now competing in. Technology is revising the workforce and the commute and the need. We, in all modes of public transit delivery, need to be better and more efficient.
Again, I stress this: We must be accountable! But simply adding another step, process or signature does not necessarily create greater accountability. We must bring projects in quicker from planning to service. Honestly, even I get tired just talking about future rail lines! It is up to us as operators, consultants and government decision makers to create an environment of innovation.
We must be able to seek partnerships while maintaining competition. We have to seek out innovation from our manufacturers and reward that innovation.
How? We get innovation by creating true design-build projects that allow for engineers, designers and planners to work collaboratively.
We generate innovation by creating competitive bids that foster interactive engagement with the Authority. We can seek best value and have latitude to determine what best value is, and how it is applied.
We have to better-maintain our existing systems and seek assistance from our state and federal partners for state of good repair. We have to build our systems robustly and with maintainability in mind. We must engage operations and maintenance from the initial planning and present realistic deadlines and expectations, so that quality is not sacrificed.
We have to think as members of the same team with our DOT partners to create an integrated approach to transportation, because we are custodians of public funds, and it is essential that each dollar is spent efficiently.
We need to recognize our freight partners’ challenges and be prepared to compensate fairly and equitably, but move legislation that allows for better integration with freight lines. Shared usage and liability limitations should be part of ongoing talks regarding legislation that allows efficient use of existing right-of-way without encumbering freight partners with an unbalanced burden of risk.
Uses of technology to diminish risk of collision and crash energy management to reduce potential harm have to be implemented quickly, particularly when safety is involved and protection of passengers is paramount. We take people into our care and custody every time they board a train, and it is beyond essential that we create the highest degree of safety that is reasonably achievable. We need to establish and enact a different set of procurement standards for safety initiatives such as Positive Train Control that allow for rapid deployment while still maintaining a competitive environment and costing. This is not hard. Successful private enterprises do it all the time.
But we, the collective we, need to understand that true risk management and safety analysis must be undertaken that looks at the whole of the enterprise. Not just the end result, but also how we get to that result.
Quite frankly, I am tired of reading about passengers dying on the tracks while the industry engages in long procurements, protracted change-order negotiations, and if time can be secured on the tracks. This is not to say we should be frivolous with our resources, but that we—again, the collective we—must have enthusiasm, energy and a sense of urgency to help those that do not have the same frame of reference. The hardest thing to do is to educate smart people.
To illustrate, I mentioned risk management and safety analysis. A property I was working at as a consultant had the resources in both personnel and finances to make a major safety improvement to its system. An RFP was put out ,and pricing came in at the engineer’s estimate: $20 million. The property had the money but could not reach contract language agreement on indemnification, so the contract was not let. To my failure, I was unable to convince executive management and counsel the necessity of the project. True risk assessment, and safety analysis, must be considered over the totality of the project, including contract language, not just the end product.
While it’s not light rail, but because I have the pulpit: The Hudson River tunnel project, Gateway, ARC—by whatever name it goes by—must be completed. But where are the voices of New York developers who rely so heavily on the traffic from New Jersey? Where are the business owners who rely so heavily on employees coming from New Jersey?
Have we done a good enough job of warning that a tunnel failure and the effect that will have on the economy is a real possibility? Someone smarter than I should figure the net economic benefit of that tunnel in dollars over its 110-year life span. I would think it would be in the hundreds of billions.
Again, we must continue to go beyond our normal reach and become partners with people who can help us influence the decision makers to make the hard financial choices, but the right ones! Have we done a good-enough job of educating? The question is not rhetorical. Have we done a good-enough job of establishing the necessity, or have we failed in educating smart people?
A dialogue has to begin with our federal overseers, supporting state and local governments and a business community that are non-adversarial, recognizing we all benefit from processes that streamline safety, execution and deployment. We owe it to the people we serve.
We must also insist on some measure of value capture when we create those economic windfalls, and we must work with lawmakers to create opportunities that allow us to fully realize use of our assets with higher-density zoning permits.
We plan and organize and garner community support and do the heavy lifting with our governmental partners. We are like the little red hen that plants the seeds and sows the plan and engineers the system and builds the light rail. But when we ask for help, “Not I,” says the developer. “Not I,” says the business owner. “Not I,” says the representative.
But yet, when we say, who wants to share in the capital gains, the increased economy and the increased tax base? “I do,” says the developer. “I do,” says the business owner. “I do,” says the representative. We need to insist that those who are generating significant profit are sharing a commensurate burden during project inception and sharing in those windfalls after project success.
I might be talking out of turn here, because most is from personal observation and apocryphal information, so if I’m wrong I apologize. But I think the “T” in Pittsburgh is an underutilized asset because current zoning restricts taking full advantage of that transportation option.
Think of the tax base increases, affordable housing options and economic opportunities that could be realized by allowing higher-density development closer to the “T” and capitalizing on that infrastructure, on that investment.
Light rail can be that driver. It has shown time and time again how important it is to the wage earner, the multi-million-dollar real estate investor, in creating sustainable jobs and a larger tax base. Everyone here knows this, and can effect that change—be the voice, create the opportunity!
Consider “a tale of two cities”—Detroit and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh never stopped light rail, and when the steel industry imploded, the city was able to quickly reinvent itself as a technology town, as a health and medical research center and as a university town.
Detroit is having a much harder time with economic recovery after being a “one economy” city. Reinventing “the who and the what” Detroit is to become is constrained by an infrastructure that does not allow choice and growth. However, Detroit is changing that. How? Through investment in streetcars!
This is why we do what we do! I started with Johnny Cash and I’ll end with Charles Dickens. He began A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” As with Pittsburgh and Detroit, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” All of us need to insure every city has the opportunity to experience “the best of times”!