Tackling Governance in Transit Megaprojects – Key Lessons from Eno’s Examination of Transit Governance in Austin

Over two dozen new rail transit projects are set to open for service across the United States by 2030. There will likely be even more proposed projects given the significant infusion of federal funding for transit under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Eno’s 2021 report on transit project delivery found that good project governance is critical to keeping costs and timelines manageable. To see how that plays out on the ground, we spent the last three months tackling this very issue in Austin, Texas.

In November 2020, Austin voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition A, a citywide property tax measure to fund Project Connect, a multibillion-dollar expansion of the city’s rail and bus transit system. To deliver the light rail components of Project Connect, the City of Austin and Capital Metro jointly created the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) as an independent public corporation to finance, design, and build the system. Currently, the CEO of Capital Metro also serves as the executive director of ATP. Eno conducted a comprehensive and independent analysis of the ATP’s governance to determine if their shared leadership model aligns with national and international best practices.

To do this, we began by closely reviewing the foundational legal documents that established the baseline for how Project Connect will be delivered. We then spent time in Austin speaking to dozens of community members, business leaders, elected officials, board members, staff, and other stakeholders to get a sense for what was working and where there was conflict and uncertainty. Afterwards, we talked to leaders from regions across the United States and Europe with comparable governance models and challenges to gather best practices and insights for what might work in Austin.

This work culminated in a final report that laid out the benefits and risks associated with both shared and separate leadership models across various program areas. We found that both leadership models are viable, and that the most important decision facing the ATP Board is ensuring that whichever model is ultimately chosen has the institutional roles, responsibilities, and structures to support it. For details on our recommendations for Austin, you can read the full Eno Independent Analysis on Eno’s website here, or the link to the leadership analysis on ATP’s website here.

Much of the analysis is specific to Austin and its unique governance and structure. The following themes, however, have broad applicability to other large infrastructure projects that are just getting started.

Defining and agreeing to agency roles and responsibilities is critical

A transit mega project is never conducted without multiple governmental bodies working together. For example, the metropolitan Washington’s Silver Line project is being delivered by the regional airports authority working with the transit agency. Sound Transit is building Seattle’s rail program and is distinct from the transit operator King County Metro. Los Angeles has used several construction authorities to deliver several light rail projects. San Diego delivers rail projects through its MPO rather than its transit operators.

Even if a single transit agency is responsible for funding, designing, constructing, and eventually operating a project, they need permits from the city, sign-offs on design review, and support from federal and state agencies to clear project hurdles. Most governance arrangements can work well, but the roles and responsibilities between the involved parties must be super clear from the start.

Some of these roles and responsibilities involve important project decisions, such as the role of planning (for example, where stations will be located), capital programming (how to prioritize projects within the budgets), and interactions with the federal government (who will apply for and receive federal grants and loans). Others are less conspicuous, including responsibilities for operational handoff, the sharing of organizational services like IT and payroll between agencies, and the approval of scope changes.

While there might be clear leads for these roles in a given region, making sure everyone agrees on them and that they are clear to agency staff and the public is more important than defining the roles themselves. Roles and responsibilities should be clearly established in a transparent, collaborative manner at the beginning of a project, and leaders should maintain openness to modifying them as circumstances change.

The community needs to feel involved, and agencies need to be empowered to move the project forward

The political culture in Austin is one that places a high priority on collaboration, buy-in, and compromise. Those traits can serve Austin well when deploying Project Connect. But for projects to be successful, institutional leaders must be decisive and move forward quickly, even with limited information. The balance between community engagement and project action is a tough one for many regions but is vitally important to making sure that projects do not become obstructed.

Regions need to invest in more in-house public outreach professionals and programs, and collaboratively work together to coordinate unified community outreach efforts. With so many agencies and partners involved in delivering a transit project, keeping outreach unified is important so stakeholders know there is a single line of communication to voice their thoughts, questions, or concerns. A well-branded and coordinated outreach effort will help smooth over tensions and enable the responsible entity to interact with affected community members. Similarly, inviting stakeholders, staff, and board members (when appropriate) to participate in decision-making will make the project more transparent, collaborative, and allow staff to prepare for future tasks.

However, expanding participation and collaboration should not result in having too many people involved in final decision-making. If the governance and institutional arrangement is clear, leadership and staff can make quick decisions using input from other organizations and the community to make sure the project moves forward and does not get bogged down with indecisiveness.

Leadership structures need to be supported by the broader governance system

The fundamental question facing Austin was whether it was in the program’s best interest to continue with shared leadership for ATP and Capital Metro. What we found was either leadership model could work but neither would under the current governance arrangement. In order to be successful, both leadership models must have the right supports in place. For example, a shared leadership model needs to be intentional, transparent, and have clear lines of reporting and a joint executive performance review across both organizations. Separate leadership needs emphasis on inter-agency collaboration and a smooth transition to a new executive director. Other regions aiming to deliver a transit mega project need to make sure that they are similarly supporting their project through governance structures that encourages transparency, collaboration, and clarity.

Pulling off a mega project is a monumental task. The most challenging part comes when the streets are torn up and project managers and leaders are dealing with daily conflicts that require swift and decisive resolution. That is why it is so important to establish smart governance at the beginning. Establishing supportive governance, defining roles and responsibilities, and creating a clear community engagement process among multiple institutions is a difficult task. But taking the time to get project governance right during the early stages of a project can minimize issues later on and reduce the risk of ballooning costs and timelines.

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