One of the main themes of the Railway Supply Institute’s (RSI) breakout sessions at this year’s Railway Interchange was collaboration, including “Collaboration for Passenger Rail Success,” which took place on Oct. 3 in Indianapolis.
“With more than $100 billion in IIJA funding in the balance, every spoke in the rail supply ecosystem must work together to ensure these funds are being allocated as intended,” said RSI in describing the theme of the session. “This involves collaboration on procurement, support for a thriving supply chain, congressional education and a regulatory environment that supports new technologies and innovation.”
The session speakers included Greg Regan, Transportation Trades Department (TTD), AFL/CIO; David Carol, CEO, American Public Transportation Association (APTA); and Harrison M. Wadsworth, Vice President, Government Relations, AECOM, who discussed how these diverse organizations are working to bridge these gaps. The panel was moderated by Mike Friedberg, Partner, Holland & Knight.
“There is no clarity from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) or the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) on Buy America issues so there are supply chain issues on project implementation, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” said Friedberg.
“We have $100 billion dollars ($66 billion for rail) and we [the government] don’t know how to spend it correctly, so the industry has to come together and make them spend this money, and spend it wisely,” added Friedberg.
“What we have found effective with Congress, is a different strategy for whether you’re ‘red’ or ‘blue,’” said Carol. For the ‘blue states,’ we tend to focus on specific transit agencies, ridership and the role we play in decarbonization, and getting people to work.
“For the ‘red states,’ many of which have great transit systems, what seems to resonate is jobs. We need the supply industry to come in and help make that argument that whether you support public transit, it creates jobs. You may disagree that you need public transportation, but the reality is, your state is benefiting greatly from these types of projects.”
Friedberg then asked Regan the following: “How do you think we become that advocacy group of the suppliers to get more money?”
“The industry at large is behaving the same way it was, five, ten, 20 years ago, as if that $100 billion was not authorized,” responded Regan. “I view that as ‘seed money’ to create federal industries.”
“If you look at just the passenger rail money, roughly Amtrak could get about $50 billion dollars and they could spend all of that on the Gateway Program, but that wouldn’t be a transformational investment; that would be a maintenance of the current system.
“What they’re doing and what I’ve encouraged them to do a lot of time is to try and look at how do we get states to try and change how passenger rail is viewed in this country and show them the options. How do we make sure we expand the system they’re resisting and once you start showing the elected officers the possibilities (what the systems could look like), you’re going to start showing them there is actual interest and support for all these systems to invest…so from a supply perspective, there is more of a guaranteed market.
“The politics are oftentimes beside the point because what we’re advocating for are their jobs and their workplaces. And when we can go in together with employers, with agencies, with Amtrak and have to be together for a broad vision and joint vision for what we can provide to communities…just you know, we went to get good results out of that. And I think there’s a huge opportunity for that right now,” said Regan.
Some of the NEPA laws have recently been made easier to get things done, Friedberg said, who then asked Wadsworth the following: “What types of things are you all doing at AECOM with respect to project limitation and NEPA to get this execution faster? Not less safe, not less environmentally friendly, but faster.”
“One thing AECOM is doing,” Wadsworth says, “is to help build digital tools to help clients understand how to find money fast and how to look at what projects to build.
“The problem is to get a state DOT or a transit agency to change their NEPA process while they have $100 billion sitting up there, they will say, ‘that’s a big risk.’”
“What we try to encourage folks to do is to celebrate every victory,” said Carol. “We don’t have to wait until the ribbon cutting. If you hire 100 workers for a utility relocation…every step of the way get something out. It creates this drumbeat that is, in fact, doing something while we’re waiting the 10 years, or sometimes 15, before the project gets done.”
Friedberg’s next question was, “How do we get our freight rail industry to break down those barriers and get together in a room and say, ‘how are we going to get these projects done?’”
“A lot of times people assume that there’s an adversarial relationship between labor and management,” said Regan. “In reality, we actually want the same end result. We want to see the industry grow and succeed. So, when we’ve been able to partner and find a common ground and advocate together, it’s been successful.”
“One of the issues in our industry is fixed cost,” said Friedberg, who then asked the group the following: “How do you think we can work with fixed costs, especially with inflation in the last few years? How do we get together and try and change that policy?”
“The role of associations is really important,” said Carol. “I’ve come to appreciate the fact that you don’t want AECOM and HDR, etc. in the same room together lobbying or influencing the bill but that’s something the association can do and does do. APTA represents all those diverse suppliers; we find the common denominators, and we’re able to use them to change policy.”
“My advice would be to invite your elected officials to your plants,” said Wadsworth.
“Should transit and rail be together?,” asked Friedberg. “They should definitely work together and they’re trying but there’s definitely a difference between FTA and FRA. Right now, FRA is in charge of $66 billion…there’s a reason why it hasn’t gone out in two years. My argument is that we haven’t made them. You can’t have people hold up projects because they don’t have the courage to sign that document.”
“There needs to be a shift in mindset [at the FTA and FRA] that we are on the precipice of creating bigger, better and newer systems,” said Regan.
“Amtrak is in the process of hiring 1,500 people and many of them have no rail experience,” said Carol. “The more you can offer…get them out there, let them see the facilities, let them see the jobs it creates, that will help.”
“The reality is that Amtrak is 95% of the passenger rail world right now. We need them to succeed,” added Carol. “Hopefully their success will create more Brightlines or Las Vegas/Los Angeles opportunities.”
“It’s actually vice versa,” said Regan. “From what I’ve seen, there has been a shift in Amtrak—instead of viewing it [Brightline, Texas High-Speed, etc.] as a competition, they’re actually viewing it as an opportunity…that is more people on railroads.”
“The more we show people what the opportunities are for this…it’s possible to get to Indianapolis or Chicago on regularly scheduled passenger rail service, it’s going to feed on itself. I think more and more people want to have access to rail…it’s not a ‘red state’ or a ‘blue state’ issue,” said Regan.