2023 40 Under 40: Elias Fischer, AICP

Aug. 22, 2023
Elias Fischer, AICP, Transportation Planner, HNTB Corporation

One word to describe yourself: Curious

Alma Mater: Binghamton University – State University of New York, BA, and Pratt Institute, MS

Fast fact about yourself: I started taking public transit alone when I was 10 years old.

What’s your best experience on transit and what made it memorable?

I think good public transit isn’t memorable; it just seamlessly takes you where you need to go. We usually remember the late buses, the long waits, crowds that put your face in a stranger’s. My best experiences on transit are when I’m able to focus on other things, like getting lost in a book or a song, catching up with a friend on our way somewhere or watching the city go by.

When I was younger, my mom and I would visit my grandmother on weekends to help her out. The subway was our time together, just me and my mom – no dad, no brothers. We would talk, read side-by-side or she would pretend I was helping her with the New York Times crossword puzzle. We live in different cities now, and I miss those train rides every weekend.

Elias Fischer has developed a reputation among clients and colleagues as a knowledgeable, dependable and dedicated transportation professional. Based in HNTB's Michigan office, he has exhibited a commitment to his role, spearheading regional transit brown-bag sessions and nurturing the technical skills of new team members. As a mentor on the planning team, he supervised HNTB's department intern program, facilitating connections between junior planners and project opportunities.

His earlier role as grants administrator at the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) equipped him with valuable experience in managing the agency's capital program and federal/state grant portfolio. During his tenure, he was instrumental in securing more than $36 million in discretionary grant funding.

Fischer extends collaborative efforts to transit agencies across the nation as he helps to devise strategic plans, implement new technologies, craft successful grant applications and provide grants management support. His pursuit of technical excellence has elevated his standing as a distinguished transit planner, with impactful contributions to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) and the M-1 RAIL Streetcar.

In 2022, Fischer authored two benefit-cost analyses for MDOT grant applications, resulting in combined awards of $129 million, including a $104.6 million Build America Bureau Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant for the I-375 Reconnection Project, aimed at replacing a downtown interstate spur with a boulevard to reunite previously divided neighborhoods and enhance community access to jobs and services and a $25 million Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant for the Detroit Mobility and Innovation Corridor, which aims to transform a two-mile segment of U.S. 12 (Michigan Avenue) into a multi-modal facility, featuring dedicated transit and connected autonomous vehicle lanes.

Fischer’s involvement with RTA includes spearheading the 2021 Regional Master Transit Plan (RMTP) and its annual updates. His dedication extends to developing grant strategies and supporting implementation of the RMTP.

Fischer has played a pivotal role in implementing the Detroit area’s first dedicated transit lane with M-1 RAIL, refining the organization’s transit asset management plan and driving tactical improvements to enhance streetcar operations. He also contributes to the Utah Transit Authority by ensuring their federal grant applications comply with the Federal Transit Administration's requirements.

Within HNTB, Fischer’s contributions extend beyond urban transit systems. He has taken a leadership role in developing MDOT's Statewide Technology Plan for Rural Public Transit Agencies and overseeing the deployment of the statewide Mobility as a Service system.

Fischer’s impact is further evident in his successful application for a Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) discretionary grant. This $1.3 million grant will enhance trip planning tools in rural Michigan, using open-standard data to make transit information readily available.

Fischer’s achievements have not gone unnoticed, as he was selected as one of 35 professionals for the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Emerging Leaders Program Class of 2024. He also participates in APTA's LGBTQ Resource Group, showcasing his dedication to fostering inclusivity and diversity within the industry.

Is there a specific experience that led you to where you are today?

I grew up in New York City, which means I grew up on the subway and bus. I could list F Train stops before I could add. Before my first day of middle school, my mother took me on what I now know of as travel training to make sure I knew how to take the bus to school. I knew what depending on public transit meant at a young age, and that has informed a lot of my personal and professional experiences and the passion I feel for making sure everyone has access to high quality transit service.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I feel like I'm learning every day, whether it's a new skill, topic, tool or perspective, and I'm lucky to work for a company and with people who truly support my development.

I’m currently in the APTA Emerging Leaders Program and have recently taken on a project management role on a few projects. Through both of these experiences, I’ve been learning a lot about myself, how I work and what I expect of other people. Like many people, I struggle with delegation, but I’ve found that nothing feels better than giving younger colleagues the space to grow and then watching them thrive.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

For me, the most challenging part of working in public transit can be getting community wide buy-in. In many areas of the country, it can be hard for people to realize the impact public transit has on those who depend on it every day because they don’t use the systems themselves. As a result, it can be difficult to get buy-in to fund services they think are not for them. Poor funding leads to poorer service. This situation can create barriers to opportunity and intensify social inequalities. COVID-19 has exacerbated this dynamic.

There is an enormous opportunity for transit agencies, public officials, communities and industry leaders to advocate for better public transit service and to generate the will to fund and deliver it. I think this is one of the greatest challenges in my work and in the transit industry in the U.S.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

Last year, I developed two benefit-cost analyses that helped bring in almost $130 million in U.S. Department of Transportation discretionary grant funding for transportation projects into Detroit: The I-375 Reconnection project, which replaces a downtown interstate spur with an at-grade boulevard and the Detroit Mobility Innovation Corridor, which will reconstruction two-miles of Michigan Avenue with dedicated transit and connected and autonomous vehicle lanes. I had never done a benefit-cost analysis before this and contributing to two big wins was such an incredible feeling. I’m so proud whenever I’m on these corridors and I know this feeling will grow when I see the completed projects and the impacts they have on peoples’ lives.

Best advice/tip/best practice to share from your area of expertise?

Say yes to things that are outside of your comfort zone, especially when you have resources and colleagues you can lean on for help. Some of my greatest accomplishments arose from moments I pushed myself to take on something I felt unsure I could I do. That’s where growth happens.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.