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METRANS

by Hayley Rundle, USC, Masters of Urban Planning 2022

On October 1, 2020, METRANS and the Pacific Southwest Region University Transportation Center (PSR) hosted Industry Outlook 2020, a webinar featuring a panel discussion of transportation industry perspectives on the impact of and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was moderated by METRANS and PSR Director Dr. Genevieve Giuliano.  Panelists were Michael “Mike” Christensen, Deputy Director of Operations and Maintenance for the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA); Mario Cordero, Executive Director of Port of Long Beach; and Phillip “Phil” Washington, Chief Executive Officer of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).  

 

The webinar was attended by transportation enthusiasts from across the nation, including public and private sector transportation professionals, faculty, researchers, and students at all levels of study. LSA Associates Client Relations Manager, Lynda Bybee, remarked “Dr. Giuliano’s composed, informed panel moderation provided a platform for three of the region’s most important transportation leaders to candidly provide sobering facts as well as optimistic perspectives for infrastructure improvements and an abundance of career opportunities for the next generation with a critical focus on technology to advance management of disruptive events.”

 

 

 “The Industry Outlook series is always a unique and valuable opportunity to learn from leaders in our field,” noted recent USC alum Eric Tunell, urban planner at IBI Group “What I found most interesting this year was how the disruption to our old routines caused by the pandemic is challenging agencies to think creatively, such as through Metro’s study of a fare-free system.”

 

The session began with predetermined questions then moved to a discussion of audience questions. Opening questions focused on the overall impact of COVID to each transportation industry.

 

What has been the most significant impact of COVID on your sector? How has this change affected revenue and business in general?

 

“The aviation sector was profoundly impacted by COVID,” Christensen shared. “LAWA saw a tremendous downturn in March and April; approximately 95% of business was down in April. Currently, revenues are still down 70% for domestic flights and 90% for international flights. Revenues dropped across the board for sectors related to the aviation industry, such as concessions and airport parking. In the economic downturn that resulted because of 9/11, revenues and business was down 55% and took 10 years to come back from that impact. In regards to cargo aviation, this aspect of the aviation industry is down 40%, most likely because less passenger planes that would carry some cargo are flying.

 

Metro experienced “several impacts,” said Washington, “the obvious one being ridership.” Ridership has increased since the early days of the pandemic when stay-at-home orders and telecommuting were first implemented. As restrictions have lessened, Metro has seen ridership increases to approximately 600,000; however, this is still down 50% than pre-pandemic ridership numbers. Metro continues to run with reduced service, but never shut down because essential workers rely on transit. Another impact Metro has experienced because of COVID is related to financing. Metro relies on local sales tax revenue, such as taxes from dining and restaurants, which has decreased because of stay-at-home orders. Because of the CARES Act, Metro was able to receive a billion dollars in funding. “Transit is a network service” Washington reflected, “one change in the network impacts the entire network.”

 

“The ports have been impacted” Cordero said, “and there was already a tariff issue going into COVID.” For the port industry, the pandemic was preceded by the geopolitical discussion of trade wars regarding tariffs. The pandemic came as an additional impact to the port industry as they were already dealing with tariffs and the trade war. “The distinguishing factor of ports is that there have not been relief funds for ports.” The future impacts of COVID on the port industry remain uncertain, especially with the approaching peak season demand in late summer and early fall leading up to the holiday season.

 

The second question focused on the opportunities that COVID has brought to transportation industries, similar to Caltrans being able to accelerate highways repairs because of reduced traffic.

 

Have there been any opportunities for your transportation industry and if so, has your transportation industry taken advantages of these opportunities?

 

For Metro, “Yes” said Washington. Metro has a large construction program, the largest in North America. Construction being deemed an essential service at the beginning of COVID allowed Metro to continue construction on almost all of its projects on the weekends and at night because of reduced traffic. This was “a huge opportunity for Metro,” Washington noted. Looking to the future, Washington used this time to propose a fare-less transit system to the Metro board. An exploratory task force has been created to study and consider this proposal, and identify additional funding sources. Washington believes it is a “moral obligation to LA County residents to pursue and study a fare-less system,” especially in light of the pandemic.

 

The Port of Long Beach has seen e-commerce increase at the port. “Online purchasing is a practice now, when it was not before,” Cordero shared. The Port has done well because consumers have not stopped buying even though local retailers are closed. Additionally, Cordero noted the opening of the new Gerald Desmond Bridge, connecting the 710 freeway and downtown Long Beach to the Port, a partnership with Metro. “In crisis we build,” Cordero said.

 

Similar to Metro, keeping construction open was essential for LAWA and its huge capital building projects. Because of the pandemic, terminal 3 at LAX was able to completely close. The ability to close down terminal 3 “shaved a year off of construction and money off of the budget had the terminal stayed opened” Christensen shared. LAWA has also used this time to pilot new technology applications to improve efficiency and lower costs. A few of these technology applications include touch-less systems and biometric boarding.

 

The remainder of the webinar was opened up to the audience’s questions for the panelists. A few of the answers from the panelists are highlighted below.

 

All panelists agreed that the global pandemic has brought a new normal to the world and has shed a light on the need for resilience. “The business traveler is not coming back to air travel anytime soon because there are other ways of meeting,” Christensen predicted. Washington said “folks are thinking this is a good time to address climate change and to consider how transportation can be included in the climate change conversation. Further, when it comes to the need for technology in these transportation industries, technology will play a large role as time progresses.”

 

For those seeking advice for entering the transportation field in this COVID environment, Christensen recommended “soaking up everything that is going on; this disruption is unearthing aspects of transportation that are important to understand.” Washington added that there will always be the need for qualified people in the infrastructure space because transportation industries have to “build, rebuild, and maintain.” Lastly, Cordero recommended having “a skillset that is prepared for a digital transformation” as “technology will play an even greater role.” Missy Blair, Advanced Program Manager/Certified MSF RiderCoach & Traffic Survival School instructor, had this to say about the event: "As a higher education professional developing the future transportation workforce, this webinar offered valuable insights from all segments of the transportation industry. The messages from the speakers and the moderator were clear: there is a bright future ahead for those seeking a career in transportation.”

 

The webinar wrapped up with hope from the panelists that the innate need for people to be together is part of the social fabric, and there will be shifts back to in-person activities once the pandemic is over.

 

USC Price dual Master of Urban Planning and Master of Public Policy student Kevin Argueta Flores summed up the event well, “It was great to hear that these agency executives are optimistic about the future as we begin to adjust to a new normal. Even though this is a time of uncertainty, the panelists gave students a more positive approach to what potential careers in the industry may look like in the next coming years. As a student and young professional, it was interesting to hear that these agencies are encouraging the incoming workforce by advising them to obtain new skills and seek emerging opportunities that have come about during the pandemic.”

 

You can view watch the full presentation here, or catch the highlights here.

 

 

About the Author:

Hayley Rundle is a first-year Master of Urban Planning student at the USC Price School of Public Policy, concentrating in Mobility and Transportation Planning. She is interested in sustainable transportation planning to improve environmental quality, equity, and mobility for all. Hayley serves as the team leader for the METRANS Industry Engagement and contributes to the Student Research Team, summarizing cutting edge transportation research projects and findings for the upcoming METRANS Fast Facts for Students series.