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Engineers are ready to bat for road, light rail and high speed rail money in the Pacific Northwest, says local rep from WSP.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Infrastructure spending from the $1Trillion Infrastructure bill will flow through state agencies such as ODOT and WSDOT, with private companies assisting them with the workload. The I-5 crossing bridge may yet get replaced.

Transit veteran of 30 years Aurora Jackson moved from the public sector to the private just in time for the passage of Joe Biden's Infrastructure bill.

She served nearly six years as the general manager of the Lane Transit District in Eugene, Oregon and seven years as the director of transportation for Montebello Bus Lines in Montebello, California. She has also worked in transit operations in Los Angeles. Now she is the Northwest Pacific Transit and Rail market lead at WSP USA, an engineering and professional services consultancy. Jackson is now responsible for the management and growth of the rail and bus business in a region that covers projects in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and Alaska.

The Business Tribune asked her about the coming deluge of money for roads, bridges and rail.

Business Tribune: What is a Canadian company doing in Oregon?

Aurora Jackson: WSP is a global company, the parent company is in Canada, but we're focused in the United States on multidisciplinary aspects of engineering, infrastructure. I am really focused on bus and rail, for public transportation, but also for freight rail, heavy rail and high-speed rail.

Some of our key connections are with Washington Department of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation. We work in supporting the potential Cascadia high speed rail concept. At the federal level, they've been talking a lot about the need to improve infrastructure. We're looking at how do we support agencies like Sound Transit, King County, Metro, Pierce Transit, Spokane, TriMet and Lane Transit. These are some of the agencies that will have some real and infrastructure needs in the coming years and, eventually, some type of federal funding will support that. We want to make sure that we're on top of it, to either implement new infrastructure, or upgrade their existing infrastructure."

We also are looking at how technology integrates Smart Cities and not just autonomous vehicles, but connected vehicles, the vehicles which are talking to other vehicles, to the infrastructure. In the next five and 10 years, the infrastructure around us is going to have to be upgraded and supported.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Part of the Congressman Earl Blumenauer Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge being craned into place across I-84 in September 2021. The Infrastructure bill means state agencies can start planning which highways and tracks to upgrade, and private companies can begin pitching for the work.

BT: When you say supporting the agencies, do you mean getting the contract to build the infrastructure?

AJ: That is correct. We say support because we're really not the decision makers. The agencies are the decision makers. We're there as a contracted provider.

BT: Let's say the voters say, we want a TriMet MAX line down to Southwest. Would your company come in and help design the rail line? Is it like public architecture where you compete against other firms with a Request For Proposals?

AJ: Absolutely, that's what we do. We would definitely be interested in helping the planning side and engineering side. We're not a construction company, so we would not be involved in building, but we definitely work with a lot of construction companies for the project. I'm actually used to be on the public side of this. I understand the challenges that agencies face in either making those decisions, they are really trying to make sure that the companies bidding on the project understand the challenges that public agencies face.

BT: When a client like TriMet wants to rebuild a new line, they know how to operate a train network already. Are they interested mainly to find out from your company what the latest technology is?

AJ: Yes, and not just the technology. They have people that manage the project from their end, but will they need an extra pair of hands? Public agencies don't have a bunch of engineers just sitting there waiting for plans. If Sound Transit needed to run a rail line that went over a suspended bridge and lands on the other side at a great distance, it has to withstand, wind and the motion of the earth and all of that. You first have to do a simulation model. Sound Transit probably would not have people on their team that could just readily dedicate time to modelling it out through and testing it out, and then getting it all approved through state, and federal standards. That's an area in which WSB would come in and do all of that work in advance, to ensure that the engineering of all of that work meets a certain standard, and then would follow the project towards completion.

In the Portland area we know that at some point the federal government is going to have some level of different projects, and TriMet and ODOT and some of the other agencies, and Multnomah and Clackamas County, the City of Portland, all of those key players, are going to need that extra pair of hands to help them deliver infrastructure projects that are way long overdue.

These types of conversations with the public probably don't make a lot of sense today, but the minute an infrastructure package gets adopted, the question everybody's asking is how are we going to do it now that we have the money? Every government official is going to be wanting to know, how do we deliver? One thing is getting to the politics of things. But the next thing is, how does the public see the results of these funding decisions? And sometimes they're years in the making, but they have to be built in.

BT: Are there federal requirements that would surprise a reader?

AJ: Federal requirements are really standard. A lot of readers do not know that public agencies have to follow very strict guidelines on how competition is done, to ensure you know, that federal dollars are well protected. And the interest the taxpayers interest is always top of mind.

Oregon passed in 2017 a Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund tax in which every employer and employee pay throughout the state, a tax for public transportation. Legislators travelled throughout the state, asking the public what they wanted. And they were shocked that public transportation rose to the top not just on the in the metro areas but in the rural area. And that is because you need access to jobs and connectivity to the different towns.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Bike lanes and bridges are an important part of the Infrastructure bill. Here a cyclist approaches a ghost bike memorial for a cyclist killed on the streets of Portland.

BT: Within the next five years, do you think we might get high-speed rail or will there be more buses on the roads?

AJ: The typical Oregonian is going to see a transformation of the existing infrastructure. A lot of the highway bridges are in need of safety upgrades. They will see a lot of construction to ensure that everything is upgraded for the next 50 years. They may see funding of extensions on light rail, they will see the technology evolving on buses. TriMet is in the midst of building their bus rapid transit route, which is much more flexible than light rail. They would start seeing more electric buses, more hydrogen fuel cell buses, a lot more quieter buses, more Wi-Fi, the technology that people today expect as part of their quality of life.

Lane Transit serves the metro area of Eugene and Springfield, probably a metro area of about 200,000 people. It has a bus rapid transit system that is just phenomenal. They are buses that have the same functionality as light rail except the buses are much more flexible throughout the community.

BT: How is the Infrastructure Bill money released?

AJ: Some of it is released to state and some is directly released to what's called recipients. The counties will be eligible to get some of that money directly, the state will give some, and the state will get enough that they keep some of it for the state overall project. But they also divvy some up amongst some other smaller agencies. It goes through all the bureaucratic steps that it takes to create rules around the money. Once it's allocated, that's when you start hearing all the local officials talking about to what to prioritize.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Road repair and expansion is important to eh Infrastructure bill, and ODOT is looking to spread the work to rural areas of the state.

Train to Canada

At the Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington state, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon, and Premier John Horgan of British Columbia signed a memorandum of understanding that establishes ultra-high-speed transportation as a regional priority. They are looking at an ultra-high-speed transportation system that links British Columbia, Washington state, and Oregon.

A 2018 study from the Washington State Department of Transportation and HC2M Hill found it would spark "up to $355B in economic growth in Cascadia while reducing harmful emissions and creating downstream benefits for affordable housing, environmental sustainability, and more. In the United States, the recently signed Bipartisan Infrastructure law presents new opportunities to pursue federal funding to significantly advance the development of an ultra-high-speed transportation system that would unify our region. In addition, Congress is currently working on a dedicated high-speed rail funding program."

Brown, who did not attend the conference, said in a statement, "Oregon has long been a proponent of cross-border initiatives that help the entire Pacific Northwest thrive. The Cascadia Innovation Corridor is a shining example of what we can achieve through partnership in shared research, transportation infrastructure, and other crucial systems that unite the region."


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
971-204-7874
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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