Consulting Questions

In most industries, the term "consultant" means a person who gets paid a lot of money to come in and answer questions. Now the debate on whether or not this person is as useful as their salary would make them out to be will rage until the end of time.

In the transit industry there may be consultants of that nature, but the consulting firms that most agencies deal with are the ones who help bring into fruition the capital projects that allow agencies to grow and serve the constantly increasing number of riders. They do much more than that, but for the basis of this article, we are going to focus on their efforts in transit planning, analysis, engineering and construction.

We've consulted with several leading consulting fi rms and asked them a series of questions. What we've touched is the tip of a very large iceberg, but it should give some insight into a few of the matters they deal with on a daily basis.


We asked, "How has the current world climate (increased fuel costs and security concerns) affected transit planning?"

"Transit planning is affected in several ways by the current world economic climate," says Susie Younie, David Evans and Associates' transit marketing manager. "First, as fuel prices rise, individuals who are dependent on automobiles for their primary transport may begin to look for alternatives including public transportation.

"Second, communities which are largely auto dependent begin to look at investments in public transportation to soften the effects of higher fuel prices on their commuting workers and others. Third, transportation professionals must review their cost estimates for current and future projects to validate the assumptions they made for material prices and cost escalation."

The answer as far as reviewing cost estimates seems to be, "think green." "As the environmental impact becomes more apparent, 'green' or 'sustainable' practices of creating healthier and more resource-effi cient models of construction, renovation and operation are fast becoming the preferred alternative," says Dan Kahn, systems engineering manager from Washington Group International.

"By nature, transit is a green industry," says Stephen Polechronis, DMJM Harris senior vice president, "but there has been a signifi cant uptick in demand for enhanced green design for transit and that has certainly affected planning."

"While public transit can be an efficient conveyor of people, there is always room for improvement," admits Kenneth Linn, STV's chief of transportation planning. "Increasingly, transit systems are seeking to utilize more energy-efficient methods of delivering transportation - from using diesel hybrid buses to adopting 'green' architectural and LEED concepts in new buildings and facilities to cut energy use. Employing these measures also has salubrious side benefits such as reduced emissions and positive community relations value.

"The increase and acceptance of transit- oriented development (TOD) clusters around transit nodes is a realization that transportation planning and land use go part and parcel - indeed this link has always existed but has eroded during decades of auto-centric land-use planning. Today, many areas are encouraging a return of TOD land uses, and the growing acceptance by developers and builders to build, and banks to participate in TOD financing, in such an environment has meant that institutional hurdles are falling."

"Increasing fuel costs also affect planning and project development decisions from the transit operator's point of view," says Stephen Beard, HDR's director of transit planning. "For example, if fuel prices stay high it might make sense to spend more capital dollars on an electrically powered light rail system rather than commit to more diesel-fueled buses. The decision point for the long term economic viability of capital projects moves in relation to estimated fuel prices. Planning must give more consideration to risk factors on future fuel costs."

Security has always been a large part of any public transportation agency, but with the change from keeping vandals out to preventing acts of terrorism, a whole new paradigm needs to be addressed.

"For years, transit systems have had to make their system vandal-resistant, employ 'defensible space' concepts to discourage and prevent the incidents of crime - typically robbery, theft, etc. The station architecture in Washington, D.C., for instance, is a direct response to those concerns and features an absence of columns (potential hiding places), walls offset behind barriers (to discourage graffiti), clear sightlines, and durable, maintainable materials," says STV's Linn.

"The need to now factor in terrorist acts has meant that terrorist concerns are increasingly being addressed during the design stage or planning stage, and for systems already in operation, retrofi tting effective layers of security to 'harden' and make areas more secure. Many transit systems are employing reactive measures to curtail or limit damage (i.e. blast-resistant trash cans) while some of the larger systems also employ proactive measures such as working with a police force that actively seeks to acquire intelligence on planned terrorist acts before they happen. New York City's police department is one that comes to mind of the latter approach."

Ron Thorstad, Earth Tech's vice president and national transit director, agrees that in the past five years, how transit systems protect themselves from attack has changed. "Since Sept. 11, transportation consultants have also been playing a vital role in improving our security by conducting vulnerability assessments, developing emergency plans, installing surveillance and controlled entry systems, and implementing features that will help a transit system recover more quickly after an incident.

"For example, tunnel experts can help limit the amount of damage caused by fire or other emergencies by taking measures to contain an incident within that area."


Most agencies we visit have, or are planning a comprehensive system analysis. We wanted to know from the consultant side, what factors are of most concern to agencies when doing one. Not surprisingly, cost was the No. 1 factor.

"Agencies are most interested in the total cost and in the efficiency of the system. The questions to be answered are: (1) can I afford it? And (2) what is being accomplished in relation to my expenditure of resources required to achieve those accomplishments?" says HDR's Stephen Beard.

"Resources will always be limited. There are elements of the system that are vulnerable to a wide variety of risks. Existing or future transit services must be effectively integrated to maximize productivity and minimize cost. Productivity must be maximized."

DMJM Harris' Stephen Polechronis agrees. "In a very constrained capital funding environment, the greatest challenge agencies face is striking the balance between capital cost and protecting the ability to effectively expand their system to meet future demand, protect future revenue, and provide sufficient, safe and secure infrastructure."

"For more general systems analysis, capital and operating costs, maintainability and whether proven concepts are employed are typical concerns," says Kenneth Linn of STV.

"The fi rst three factors are self-explanatory and relate to costs to procure, to operate and whether a system will be overly diffi cult to fund or maintain. Proven concepts refer to whether specific ideas are being tested or implemented for the first time - often it is easier to follow and learn from other systems that have taken the plunge first and let someone else take the bugs out of a system.

"An example of this might be hydrogen fuel cell buses. Unless bequeathed with demonstration funds, a transit agency may wish to let another agency take the lead, and then based upon industry experience, later jump in after the technology has been perfected and production costs (economies of scale) realized," says Linn.

"Without a doubt, operating costs are paramount in any system analysis," says TranSystem's Mark Walbrun. "Transit agencies across the country are squeezed by limited tax revenues, inability to easily adjust fares, a very competitive market for choice riders and constantly increasing costs for labor and vehicle/facility maintenance."

"The impetus for launching a systems analysis is often to fi nd a way to operate more efficiently using the same resources to generate a reduction in operating costs or to provide more service for the same expenditure. In many cases agencies must meet artifi cial targets generated by oversight agencies, such as a 10 percent across the board reduction.

"A good systems analysis looks at routes, headways, garage efficiencies, overhead and job scheduling to provide a list of options for changes and the expected savings from those changes. In some cases, routes haven't been changed since the system was taken over from private operators.

"One transit agency offi cial told me 'we provide service from where people used to live to where they used to work'. That offi cial spearheaded a route analysis designed to closely match riders with destinations that helped fulfill their mandate to become a key resource for the community," says Walbrun.

While cost is a primary concern for agencies on every level of their business, Earth Tech's Ron Thorstad, believes the key to a good system analysis is building relationships.

"Transportation consultants must be more than technical experts; they also need to be relationship builders. Depending upon the size of the project, any number of local, state and federal regulatory agencies will be involved, requiring significant coordination. In addition, public outreach has been a critical requirement of transit projects as the general public has become more knowledgeable about potential environmental and economic impacts," Thorstad says.


So the advancements to your system have been planned out and you've completed a system analysis to make sure it's right for you. Now it's time to enter the engineering stage. But as we move forward into the new millennium a myriad of new possibilities is presented before us. How do these technological advancements affect the engineering process? Interestingly, DMJM Harris' Polechronis thinks technology has made the engineering process more difficult.

"While some pure technological advancements have made transit engineering easier - for example, energy consumption forecasting and system maintenance requirements defi nition - much technology has made transit engineering more difficult. It facilitates so many competing interests like energy conservation, tougher environmental regulations, community sensitivity, etc," says Polechronis. "Transit engineering is more challenging than ever, in part, because technology has engendered more sophisticated demands."

Like the rest of the world, the engineering industry has found that through the Internet so much more connectivity is available and that has changed the face of the business.

"The mainstream use of the World Wide Web and high speed Internet connections has radically changed the way the world does business. The ability for engineering firms to work from Web interface platforms is an advancement in effective project management and QA/QC systems, and provides a common storage area to maintain and organize documents. Integrated collaboration and workflow tools are used to access, create, modify, review and approve documents by the team and clients in a controlled manner. Effectively using these systems improves communication, and accelerates review periods - allowing for a more efficient delivery of documents," says David Evans' Susie Younie.

"Web-based project management tools have improved the coordination of transportation engineering work," says Earth Tech's Thorstad. "In many cases, this results in improved productivity and allows project teams to transcend geographic boundaries allowing the most wellequipped professionals to collaborate on a single project."

Christopher J. Holliday, STV's vice president - manager of vehicle and systems engineering, agrees. "Internet-based collaboration tools have revolutionized the delivery of the complex projects typical with the installation of transit systems or building transit vehicle fl eets. Such projects typically involve multinational corporations with work activities taking place on multiple continents.

"Tools such as Autodesk Buzzsaw, Skire Unifi er and other Internet-based collaboration tools allow these geographically distributed project teams to communicate, work together on the same set of documents and ensure that all project resources are available to all project participants regardless of location or time zone."

While Washington Group's Dan Kahn agrees that online collaboration is one of the greatest technological advancements benefi ting the engineering industry, he doesn't limit that benefit to connectivity software.

Kahn states, "Today, almost all disciplines use software to produce designs. Some of the most critical areas of transit design involve tunnels, platforms, tracks and the three major systems of communication, train control and traction power.

"We rely extensively on off-theshelf software to design and produce documents. For example, the CADD 2D/3D enables us to design, draft and view facilities; tunnel ventilation system exclusively depends on computerized fluid dynamics (CFD) software to predict and design smoke management system; simulation software predicts train performance and power requirements which are utilized to design ATC and traction power systems. All of the above tools reduce design time by providing accurate calculations, enabling existing designs to be modifi ed for site-specifi c needs, permitting rapid changes and shortening the review/acceptance process."

Mark Walbrun looks at the technological advancements with a more hands-on approach. He sees the introduction of graphical information systems (GIS) as an immediate benefi t for the transit engineer.

"A quiet revolution has taken place in transit planning and design through the use of GIS. The linking of maps, aerial photos and population data has revolutionized our business and made 'What if?' and other comparisons available with a few key strokes that would have taken months of study only a decade ago.

"We are now able to design services that match the best available data on land use, population, traffi c congestion, road capacity, rail capacity and origin-destination studies. The transition from planning to engineering has been made much smoother by the use of common backgrounds and overlays so that the fi nal design engineer can easily comprehend what the concept and preliminary designer was trying to accomplish and save regenerating new backgrounds."


While the images of Hurricane Katrina played across televisions across the nation, the storm's effects could be seen just as vividly for those looking at construction projects. Combining this catastrophe with the increased fuel costs and construction costs have been severely increased and look to stay there. So what do the consultants suggest agencies do to cut those costs? "There are several ways for transit agencies to prepare for and offset higher construction costs," says David Evans' Susie Younie.

"Among these are the following: (1) Shorten the project delivery period to minimize the effects of inflation on project costs. (2) Assess the risk of individual projects to higher construction costs. Are some elements more prone to uncertainty regarding materials' costs than others? (3) Review contractual documents including general conditions, special conditions and Division I specifi cations to identify and eliminate provisions which may unreasonably increase a contractor's risk and, therefore, the bid price of the job. (4) Plan procurement strategies to maximize competition. (5) If the availability of federal or local funding is artificially extending the duration of project construction, investigate fi nancing techniques, such as a letter of credit, to increase the agency's flexibility in funding a shorter construction cycle."

"The devil really is in the details," says TranSystem's Walbrun. "Too many transit projects rely on outdated details for items such as track support, platform surfaces, electrical distribution and fare collection. These items can have major impacts on construction costs without an attendant benefit to the service.

"The trick is to question design details to ensure that a stock solution is not being applied throughout a project to save engineering fees at the expense of a much more costly construction project."

Washington Group's Dan Kahn sums up the solution in two words - design build.

"Many agencies are realizing the benefi t of shortening the project duration to stretch their funds and gain more improvements. One of the most effective ways to do this is by using the design-build method. This contract method can reduce the scheduled time to operations signifi cantly and save critical budget dollars for the overall project."

"Combine liberal applications of shared experience techniques, such as value engineering and peer review, with a focus on the fundamentals of cost control," says STV's vice president, Robert Lutz.

"Start early. Beginning with initial planning and budgeting, consider the potential impacts of cost escalation and other risks. Identify mitigation strategies and update them during design development. Make judicious use of contingency and reserve accounts. Apply sound estimating techniques, avoiding over-optimistic assumptions and skimpy allowances. Establish collaborative relationships with the construction community and seek its advice on materials, long lead items, scheduling and contract provisions.

"Simplify. All too often 'outside-the-box' planning leads to 'outside-the-budget' results. To keep costs down, be conservative. Use off-the-shelf equipment, readily available materials and construction methods familiar to local contractors. Take time to finish plans and specifications, including thorough quality control, before putting them on the street. Emphasize clarity in communication with everyone the project will touch.

"Monitor and adjust. 'Scope creep' is like the weather; everybody complains about it. Prepare working estimates and monitor conformance to budgets throughout the design and construction processes, keying on trends and adjusting scope as necessary. If partners insist on expensive design solutions, ask them to pay the betterment costs."

No matter what part of the process agencies may be looking at, it's important to remember there are a variety of options available to help save funding dollars in the short term and give better overall service to riders in the long run.