Light-rail owners, planners and builders are enjoying unprecedented public support—and facing unprecedented challenges as a result. With more than 30 cities building light-rail systems, the need for workforce talent and funding is greater than ever.

“There is no better time ever to be in transit,” said Leslie Rogers, a San Francisco-based regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, speaking to attendees of the Transportation Research Board/American Public Transportation Association Joint Light Rail Conference held April 19-21 in Los Angeles. “We have a great friend and partner in Washington. In thirty years we’ve never been as excited and re-energized.”

But Rogers also acknowledged tremendous funding challenges. “How will we finance transit in the coming years?” he asked. “How will we maintain a state of good repair? We have a $50-billion backlog in deferred maintenance. Five billion dollars a year are needed to maintain infrastructure even if it is fixed.” Rogers said FTA is finalizing a report on capital needs of the nation’s largest light-rail operators.

“There is no better time ever to be in transit.”

The light-rail world also faces personnel needs. “We need lots of good people who are able to deal with a complicated business,” said Jerome Premo, North American rail group leader for AECOM, Los Angeles. He noted that APTA has created a workforce development team “to come up with ideas to deal with the gripping issue of the next transit generation” and cited “9K in ’09”— “let’s get the message out about public transit to nine thousand high school students.”

James Palmer, transportation director in Hill International Inc.’s Philadelphia office, said the industry is “behind the curve” in using digital modeling for projects. “Why is vertical [construction] so ahead of horizontal?” he asked. He proposed a spin-off of building information modeling (BIM) called civil information modeling (CIM). He noted that it is more difficult to employ CIM due to the peculiarities of transit work, such as the inclusion of different stakeholders at different points. “But new delivery systems are making it possible,” he added.

The idea of integration also could apply to construction and maintenance. “FTA has different [funding] sections for new versus existing systems,” said Dan Caufield, director of operations planning and development for Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon. “But it’s really one overall program.” He suggested that when agencies issue contracts for new construction, the scope of work could include upgrades to existing infrastructure.