Nuria I. Fernandez, general manager and CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, is a veteran transportation engineer who has been in leadership positions at the Chicago Transit Authority, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation and CH2M Hill. She is the new chair of the American Public Transportation Association. She spoke with ENR Senior Transportation Editor Aileen Cho at the APTA annual conference about how public transit agencies face challenges of funding, technology and workforce. This interview was edited and condensed.


What are your goals as APTA chair?

I’ve reviewed APTA’s strategic plan and said that I wanted to glean from four priorities: infrastructure investment, technology, workforce and safety, security and resiliency. The first is funding. We always need more money. In public transit, we have a $90-billion backlog created for years of low investment. It’s difficult to keep pace with getting new, upgraded infrastructure and new assets to attract more people. We need to plan and expand to connect to where people live and where businesses are relocating.

We need to get increased investment for state of good repair projects. We also want to go back to the [traditional] allocation ratio of 40-40-20 from federal funds: 40% of funds from federal government into capital investment grants, 40% for state of good repair, and 20% for bus/bus facilities. That takes care of the entire broadband:  from rural communities, small and suburban communities, and urban centers. Everyone gets a lift.

What about technology?

We are now confronted with more options for mobility. Our traditional go-to constituencies are moving on to new technologies. Uber and Lyft showed up and started to draw away some of our passenger base. It was the advent of the smartphone. Others took advantage of a tool that puts the power of decisions into people’s hands. We weren’t as fast to adopt it. We can no longer be in catchup mode. We have to be more aggressive in anticipating, planning and even dreaming about what is possible so that we can start building our processes and policies around a flexibility. If something changes, we are there.

Not a whole lot has changed in two centuries in public transit. We have fixed guideways that you can’t relocate. Communities have shifted and moved away from some of where those investments were made. Cities are so congested that they don’t want to dedicate lanes for buses because they feel the only mobility choices they have is to allow for delivery trucks, private vehicles, taxis and other things that support commerce to have access to those lanes. We’re in a paradigm shift. The mobility landscape has transformed. It’s time for us to keep pace with that transformation.

What is APTA doing about workforce development?

We’ve spent a lot of time at APTA developing programs like Leadership APTA and emerging leaders. One segment of our workforce are operators and maintainers. They make up 80% of population at every transit agency. That is the sector we need to pay attention to. They stay with us 30-40 years until they retire. When they start retiring, we have these huge gaps in talent. We need to attract talent and provide training and tools. We need to get management and labor to build alliances together to figure out roadmap for adopting new technologies.

We are the experts in mobility. People are designing tools around mobility that don’t move people; they’re just tools. We move people. Tech companies keep coming up with new ideas. We should be at the table. We need to get our workforce to feel comfortable with the changes that are happening.

How do you reconcile transit-oriented property values going up with affordable housing?

People who have made a lifetime decision 30 or 40 years ago are being forced out of their homes. What that does to public transit is, we lose ridership. New entrants may or may not use public transportation. What’s encouraging is that we are seeing more millennials deciding not to buy automobiles. Yes, they’re attracted to their smartphones and to solutions like TNCs. But we have an infrastructure already in place. At Valley Transportation Authority, we adopted an affordable housing policy for transit-oriented development. We did that in recognition that people want to stay where they are. We have a large community of seniors who want to stay in place. That’s just one segment.

Our policy has a 30% affordable housing total. We look to minimum of 20% per development as a requirement. Our first TOD at Tamien Station—which has light rail and Caltrain—it’s not only 20% but the developer is committed to exceed that amount.

What role will P3s play in transit projects?

Infrastructure was always seen as a government responsibility, but the reality is that our funding and taxes can’t keep pace with the level of investments required. Building these partnerships with the private sector will be integral. The private sector also derive benefits from the infrastructure. The Federal Transit Administration has a pilot program for expedited project delivery. We will submit an application next spring. We made it known to FTA and provided them through an RFI our approach to it. One of the requirements in that pilot program is for demonstration of a P3. They’re opening up to the fact that if we can have the private sector play a part in public infrastructure and have developments occur around that, we will create value and capture that value that we can reinvest into the public assets.

As it pertains to high-speed rail, we’re seeing that more and more. Cities are looking to get high-speed rail through P3s. We can get access to amazing technology if we let others in. I’m not advocating for one method or another. It’s a balance.

What about diversity and inclusion?

APTA has a Diversity and Inclusion Council. We invite businesses, small DBEs to be part of our membership. We encourage corporations to have diverse employees and transit agencies to recruit and retain da iversity of people.  We also have a group as part of event selection…when we plan a conference, we look for locations that embrace diversity. Those who have passed laws we feel disadvantage segments of our membership…then we bring products, partner with cities and add educational components to demonstrate why diversity is a strength.

Coming to APTA for me initially was about networking, going to training sessions, professional development. As I got more involved, I realized that it was bigger than my projects. This is about lifetime decisions that we make each day. Putting service before self gives you a new perspective on what we do, how we should do it and the thought that needs to go into decisions—because they affect so many aspects that that either help or hurt mobility and communities. What I’ve seen is the ability that public transportation has to change people’s lives – people we will never meet.