A Tale of Two Cities

King County Metro’s general manager, Kevin Desmond, is a pretty soft-spoken guy. Not one to toot his own horn, he deflected my best efforts to pick his brain for advice for other transit executives, claiming he was more interested in hearing what they had to say, especially those he admires for what they’ve done in their systems.

Desmond began his transit career in New York City as a policy and operations analyst before winding up in the city’s department of transportation (DOT). After bouncing around city government for a bit, he found himself at the NYC transit authority where he would eventually become head of operations planning.

Desmond says his master’s degree in public administration is how he got into government service in the first place, but he really gravitated toward transit once he had a taste of it.

“I think working in transit is very interesting,” Desmond says. “We really looked upon it as hey we’re a consumer product business. We’re not just a city service. A government service. We need to behave in large part just like a business. We’re trying to sell a product.”

After awhile, Desmond says the the Big Apple demand on lifestyle issues made him look for other opportunities, and he found it on the West Coast at Pierce Transit — a significant change from NYC Transit, or so he thought at the time.

Heading West
“NYC Transit is the biggest transit system in the United States by far. It has no peer in the United States. Its only peers are London and Paris and Moscow and so forth — the very large transit systems. Hong Kong. Tokyo. The large transit systems in the world. 40,000 employees. Heavily balkanized organization. Just issues beyond issues,” Desmond says.

“Then I moved to an organization with about 700 employees with a little over 100-some-odd buses at the time. And what I learned in the transition that while many of the issues are obviously different, the level of intensity is different, it’s still the same business.”

Desmond says no matter the system size, the agencies were still putting buses or transit vehicles on the road every day. They were still dealing with passenger issues. Applying that knowledge to what he gained from working in a small organization with him, Desmond took the much smaller trip this time when he left Pierce Transit for the nearby King County Metro system in Seattle.

“The advantage of a place like Pierce Transit was when you wanted to make something happen, snap your fingers, things can happen. There are so few layers of bureaucracy that you have to go through, whereas New York City Transit had huge layers of bureaucracy. It took a lot longer to make things happen. So you had to work hard at that. You had to really work the bureaucracy in a very different way.

“[At Pierce you could] just make things happen because we were so small. And back to King County Metro, here it has both. It’s still smallish compared to New York, but 10 times bigger than Pierce Transit,” Desmond says.

Desmond says that the thing he has learned along the way is how to make an organization move. According to Desmond, agency directors need to, “move through or eliminate the silos within your different sections within the organization to get things done.”

APTA Leadership
Kevin Desmond is one of the first generation of transit directors who came up through the leadership programs at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). While he was at Pierce Transit, he was able to attend the very first International Transit Studies Mission, which opened a lot of doors for him.

“Ken Gregor, who had recently retired as the head of MARTA, was our trip leader. A lot of well-known people in the business — Mike Townes (APTA immediate past chair) was on that trip, for example — you know I made a lot of friends from that.

“We went to London, Manchester, Paris, Amsterdam, Stuttgart. So we saw what was going on in the world in Europe. It was both learning what was going on internationally and meeting with people from throughout the country here who were in various different types of staff and executive functions in transit agencies in the United States,” Desmond says.

He admits that the trip was a real eye-opener. While he had braved New York City Transit, he was still fairly new to the industry. He’d soon get seasoned with acceptance into the first Leadership APTA program.

“It was the first class so they were kind of trying to figure it out as they went along,” Desmond says.

“It opened up doors. It opened up opportunities. I got to see a little bit more of what goes on within APTA. I got to meet some other key players in the industry as well. I think both of those things were excellent professional development opportunities. And clearly they’ve paid off with my career.”

Budget Worries
King County Metro is like many other transit agencies across the country faced with huge budget deficits despite booming ridership. Desmond says that keeping the buses running is the goal, but to meet the budget, “for us everything has to be on the table.”

Desmond says the agency has already taken steps to close a $100 million budget gap it’s facing, including reducing capital spending by $80 million, tapping into emergency operating reserves — which he says they’ve never done before — putting in a hiring freeze and raising fares.

The fare increase was part of what Desmond calls a “very rapid and steep staged increase” resulting in an effective 75-cent fare increase in less than 24 months. Will that fill the gap? Not a lot Desmond says.

“Each quarter generates roughly $10 million in fares. So it can only address a portion of that. Will we consider yet another fare increase on top of what’s already been approved? Yes. Everything has to be on the table. We’ll have to consider that.”

But Desmond knows that they have to keep an eye on the fare increases so they don’t begin affecting ridership numbers. King County Metro has seen huge ridership growth in the Seattle area, which Desmond doesn’t want to risk.

“We’re achieving very, important policy objectives by seeing that kind of growth in ridership in a fairly short period of time. We don’t want to lose that. Clearly the recession is going to affect that because our ridership is going to be directly correlated with jobs in the region.”

Desmond knows that this situation isn’t just indicative of his region; it’s affecting systems across the country. He says there were a couple panels on this at last year’s International Public Transportation Expo in San Diego.

“And a lot of my colleagues from throughout the nation were either on the panel or in a very large audience,” Desmond says.

“I think we’re all dealing with the same problem. The manifestation of the problem might be different in each property. Our revenue and taxing sources may be somewhat different. Our peculiar or unique financial circumstances in each city, each region are going to be somewhat different. But bottom line is we’re all suffering loss of revenue.”

Desmond also points out that most agencies were also seeing large increases in ridership like King County, but that doesn’t mean he has the answers.

“I’m not sure I have any particular advice for anyone. We’re all figuring this out as we go along. This has never happened in our industry where you have simultaneously huge demand increases and huge loss in our operating revenue.

“What we need to start here almost certainly is that public dialogue. How do we save the service? What’s the best tact to take? Do we just live within our means and if we have to live within our means, what do we have to say goodbye to? What goes away?

“Or do we struggle to find different ways to backstop the loss of revenue. Are there other funding sources particularly in these very difficult economic times that we’re finding ourselves in, that are acceptable to the general public?” Desmond asks.

Transit Doomsday
I asked Desmond if he thought the revenue shortage and ridership boom was going to cause any sort of “Doomsday Deadline” as has been bandied about in other transit agencies across the country. He didn’t think the situation was that desperate — the agency can make it through 2009 even facing a newly projected $30 million deficit for this year — but changes needed to be made.

Desmond says that by 2010 and beyond, the system’s budget is going to be in a “complete structural imbalance.”

“Is it doomsday? I wouldn’t call it doomsday, but very significant cuts are very much looming on the horizon.

“That’s where I think we need to begin a real public participation, public dialogue process in the spring and summer of this year, probably. To begin raising general public awareness of what the problem is, getting public input on what is the best way to approach the problem,” Desmond says.

Big Fleet
Along with its huge number of trolley buses, King County Metro employs more than 200 hybrid articulated vehicles — almost half the agency’s fleet. Desmond says simply that for King County they work and work well. Oh and that hybrid thing? It has to do with the major geographic hurdle the agency faces, a mile-and-a-half long tunnel in downtown Seattle.

“We can’t run normal diesel buses in the tunnel, so we needed a clean alternative,” Desmond says.

“We engaged in a really good partnership with the manufacturers to develop the articulated diesel-electric hybrid bus specifically to operate in the tunnel.

The hybrid articulated buses operate much like a Toyota Prius he says, with the caveat that you have control over the hybrid control.

As the bus leaves the tunnel the operator pushes a button and then it operates just like any other diesel bus. Desmond says though the articulated hybrids are more expensive than a standard diesel articulated bus, they are less expensive than a dual move diesel/trolley bus, and their duty cycle has been excellent.

Coordinating County Connectivity
King County Metro may be one of the largest systems in the region, but it’s far from the only one. Other than Pierce Transit, Desmond’s former employer, there is also Community Transit and Sound Transit. All of these systems have to operate in a connected and coordinated manner throughout King County, which is no easy task.

“That’s always been around here an ongoing issue and as transit as part of the solution to traffic management, traffic congestion, roadway management has gained in the public eye the service integration issue the organizational issues are increasingly at the forefront,” Desmond says.

Desmond feels the various systems coordinate well despite institutional barriers. “We as separate institutions do have our own both local set of issues, local demands and local differences in the way we provide service because each of the four agencies in the region: us, Community Transit, Pierce Transit and Sound Transit in effect have different missions.”

King County Metro operates the urbanized service in the Seattle area and much of the suburban and commuter service. Community Transit to the north of Seattle is heavily invested in commuter service. Pierce Transit to the south is more of a localized system focusing on service within Pierce County. Sound Transit is the regional agency that also provides rail service and express bus service, which the three other agencies operate for it.

Desmond says with all those systems coming and going through the downtown, Seattle area integration is a must. He says King County Metro works with the Seattle DOT to manage just how that bus service comes into and out of the city. The systems also coordinate their Web pages, trip planning services and soon their fare collection systems. The Orca card will be a unified fare system throughout the Puget Sound region accepted by all four transit agencies.

“The Orca card will take us to the next step in regional fare integration. So we’re very excited at long last to be able to launch that,” Desmond says.

Central Link
Downtown Seattle is about to get a new wrinkle in its integration plans as Sound Transit’s Central Link light rail line begins operations later this year. And despite the challenge, Kevin Desmond couldn’t be happier.

“We’re tremendously excited after a long, long time. I mean this has been talked about, desired by so many people since the 1960s. So at long last the Seattle area will have its first real rapid transit system,” Desmond says.

“We’re extremely excited. It will launch in July of this year and the extension to Sea-Tac airport is set to open up at the end of this year.”

Desmond says integrating Link into the existing bus services King County Metro provides was in the plan from the beginning. “There’s an understanding that when Link light rail begins operation to the extent that it is overlapping or duplicating bus service we can then remove some or all of that bus service and ideally we’ll be able to reallocate those service hours to other needs within those communities primarily to help create feeder systems to the Link.”

Desmond sees Central Link as the system’s spine with Metro buses feeding into it like its bones. He admits that a lot of the Link ridership is going to rely on good feeder service to maximize its value to the community and to maximize the value of the bus system.

But despite the benefits the new plan will provide, it’s still difficult to make any changes to a system that has operated as long and as well as Metro has.

“That’s the hard part,” Desmond says, “because you’re still changing service that people have relied on for many, many years.”

“So we’re working that through a community process. But as typical here, as we work through we get the feedback.”

Intermodal Tunnel
Downtown Seattle’s transit tunnel proved to be the most difficult challenge for the implementation of the new light rail line. Not only was the plan to run both light rail and buses through the same tunnel at the same time revolutionary, it meant closing the tunnel for two years while it underwent an $80 to $90 million retrofit to allow the light rail to use it.

“That was quite a project. And I think it is a major source of pride for myself and for my organization and I know for my colleagues over at ST and at Seattle DOT because no one thought it would work,” Desmond says with a smile.

The challenge of retrofitting the tunnel meant putting the 60 buses that operate in the tunnel every hour during peak periods and all of the people at the tunnel’s bus stops on Downtown Seattle’s streets.

“We had to take a lot of measures to make the streets work better,” Desmond says.

“Working with Seattle DOT, we turned Third Ave. into a peak only, just transit mall, if you will, which is still in place to this day because it worked so well.

“We were worried that the buses would slow down a lot, which would then increase our operating costs. And it really didn’t happen. They were a little slower, but they were not nearly as slow as had been feared because of the very good work that we did with Seattle to make the street grid work better for transit.”

Desmond says the transition actually was a huge success, “We benefited as public agencies tremendously because the business community, the property owners, the commercial interests in Seattle thought it was going to be a disaster and it worked great.”

Now that the tunnel has finished its retrofit, the trains can start running. Desmond says as far as he knows there is no other transit agency in the world that operates something like this. To mitigate problems, once the vehicles enter the tunnel — both bus and light rail — they will operate under a signalized train control system.

“The bus operators will in effect have to use the same rules that train operators are accustomed to,” Desmond says.

“We’ll be operating roughly five or six buses for every train in the tunnel so we have to manage throughput in that tunnel to make sure that Sound Transit’s service frequencies on the train are maintained and maintain the capacity for the buses as well.”

Desmond knows that it’s going to be challenging, but says they are focused on making it work, noting that in the transportation industry in general, and they specifically have paid a lot of attention to other agencies that have begun operating streetcars and light rail vehicles in mixed-use traffic and how they’ve made safety considerations.

“I think Sound Transit has taken a lot of very good work on that to help minimize if not prevent accidents in the collective right of way. Fortunately only a portion of the light rail is operating in mixed traffic. Much of it is on its own exclusive right of way so we should not have a lot of that.”

Ridership Surge
As we discussed the new light rail line, I brought up the fact that many agencies across the country have seen tremendous surges in ridership completely eclipsing expectations when they open them. With the constrictions of the downtown tunnel, I wondered how Metro was going to handle that.

“We’re all aware of that, that most of the systems that have opened in the United States in recent years have been very large instant successes. So yes that’s going to be a concern,” Desmond says.

“Whether and how you can add another car initially actually affects the operation of the tunnel with the buses. And so that’s what’s going to make this system a little bit different in terms of managing demand. Now that said, our folks and obviously Sound Transit folks have looked very, closely at their expectations for ridership. How much additional capacity there still would be with the frequencies of service we’re operating to deal with, you know if it was 10 percent or 15 or 20 percent higher than expected? Would we be able to manage that?”

Desmond says they are reasonably comfortable with an initial ridership surge, including having timing built into the frequency to adjust for it. Booming rail ridership in effect means less buses in the tunnel.

“The key constraint, the tunnel. Other than that Sound Transit would have a little bit more flexibility to add service initially,” Desmond says.

I asked if that meant that someday the tunnel would be strictly used by for light rail and he admitted that it would. As part of Sound Transit’s Phase II expansion plan, the increased ridership from more light rail would put the buses back onto the streets.

Best of Times …
When I asked Desmond if he had any advice for other transit executives, he deflected the question as best as he could saying he’d rather hear from others instead of to try and give advice himself.

“We’re in the midst of a completely unique and totally unexpected set of circumstances we’re facing now. You know it’s a tale of two cities; it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times,” Desmond says.

“It’s the best of times with the demand that there has been for transit on the ridership side. It’s the best of times as the nation, particularly now with the new administration in Washington, D.C., has been very focused on climate change and managing carbon to the extent that federal legislation eventually moves toward pricing carbon, whether it’s through say a cap-and-trade or through basically a carbon tax. The president has proposed in his budget a cap-and-trade system.”

Desmond says he thinks transit can play a big role in a system that uses carbon pricing because it will change the way people think about how they use their cars and how roads are built.

“I think that suggests an even greater roll for transit in the national environment and our local environment for managing transportation, as well as energy and environmental policy.

“So it’s a really fascinating time to be in our business, but we’re also facing these huge financial deficits. So how we balance those two things, how we work with federal legislators to continue to put transit at the forefront as a valuable asset going forward to the success of this country and success of our urban areas and success even of our suburban areas and get it to a place where it is viewed as being important even from a funding side as a general highways type program.

“That plays itself out in the federal environment that certainly plays itself out in a state and local environment here in Washington and I think it probably plays out as well in other communities,” Desmond says.

“My advice is how we work through this conundrum in the near term will have a lot to do with where we go in the future.”