Building the Public Sector Workforce Capacity to Build Transit Better

This article is focused on aspects of Eno’s latest report: Saving Time and Making Cents: A Blueprint for Building Transit Better. For more information about project delivery, register today for Eno’s Transit Cost and Delivery Symposium on October 18-21, 2021. At the event, we will share findings from Eno’s transit cost and delivery report, and include panel discussion on best practices in permitting reform and other project delivery themes among transportation professionals, policymakers, and researchers.

Eno’s recent research explored the high costs and long timelines associated with building transit projects. For projects in the United States, there are many culprits – from poor project governance, disorganized processes, and outdated standards.

Among them is needs to improve the workforce. But one of the most surprising findings from Eno’s research is that the unionized, frontline construction workforce is not a primary cost and timeline driver for most major public transit projects. Research and interviews from our case studies in Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Denver, found that this workforce is typically paid above the prevailing wage and, given that nearly all workers are employees of private construction firms, do not have public sector pensions or other benefits associated with public sector agencies. While labor constitutes a significant portion of project costs, outside certain markets like New York, reforms to work rules and regulations will not have much effect.

Instead, workforce issues lie squarely within the in-house agency project management and oversight staff. While some agencies have built internal capacity through their longstanding capital programs, like LA Metro and Sound Transit, most other agencies build large, complex transit projects once every decade. This creates scenarios where experienced staff from one project leave the agency before work on the next project begins, and newer staff may not have the project experience required for these complex projects.

Executing a megaproject is no easy task. Overburdened and undertrained public agency staff have trouble coordinating environmental review and planning documents, creating discrete and clear procurement plans, writing smart and effective contracts, and ensuring adherence to contract terms during construction. These all lead to problems with litigation, change orders, and delays throughout a project.

To help attract top talent and supplement their own staff to work through these complex problems, many agencies bring on consultants. While consultants are useful for their specialized expertise, they are often risk-averse, which leads to project delays due to unnecessary back and forth discussions between staff, supervisors, and contractors over relatively minor decisions. The shortfalls in public sector project oversight are a primary driver of both timelines and costs.

The good news from our research is that these problems can be addressed. First, public agencies must be enabled to hire top talent. Many public institutions have set salary schedules or caps that limit agencies’ ability to hire from an international pool of experienced project managers. This in part forces agencies to bring on consultants to gain access to their skills. This issue can be resolved by either reforming rules for capital construction staff, or creating special purpose delivery vehicles (SPDVs), which are new institutions tasked with constructing large projects that can set their own hiring rules. SPDVs are common in places like Madrid and Copenhagen, which were set up with no previous institutional capacity and successful built large subway projects.

In addition to hiring top talent, agencies need to set up a management structure that is nimble and responsive to the dynamics of a megaproject. In Denver, for example, a delegated authority approach for the region’s FasTracks system expansion led to faster turnarounds on key decisions and fewer project delays. Project sponsors should also invest in a small, multidisciplinary team of high-quality, experienced executives with control over on-the-spot decisions, and enough junior staff to support them. The team needs to consist of employees from the public sector to ensure no conflicts of interest and proper oversight of outsourced staff.

Public agencies can also borrow qualified staff from other organizations, either temporarily bringing them on the payroll or having others work alongside them for the portion of the project they are needed. For example, many state departments of transportation are well versed in land acquisition or environmental permitting and can lead or support those tasks for transit projects. Similarly, Federal Transit Administration (FTA) staff were well-regarded by interviewees, with project sponsors requesting more support from collocated field staff.

Finally, project sponsors need to invest in better training and support for front office staff who are responsible for overseeing, monitoring, and managing projects from inclusion to operation. This training should include how to empower staff to make business decisions to move the project along. Escalating minor, non-safety-critical decisions or issues up the management chain is a recipe for delays. The FTA can help by working with project sponsors to determine their workforce needs more precisely for project delivery management and oversight. The FTA should invest in and develop training institutes and provide additional resources.

Experienced, empowered staff with strong oversight is associated with fewer project delays and thus significant time and cost savings. Committing to making smart investments in public servants with the skills and authority to move major projects forward can provide tangible results. With a potential influx of significant federal dollars for new transit infrastructure, investing in the public sector’s capacity to deliver projects will ensure those dollars are used as effectively as possible.

For more information, register today for Eno’s Transit Cost and Delivery Symposium on October 18-21, 2021.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill