Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ask Wednesday: Shelly Hall on the operation of local transit systems

Public systems need private help

Edited by Morris Dean

At our next-door neighbors’ first birthday party for their twin boys this spring, I was pleased to strike up a conversation with Shelly Hall, who is the Vice President for Safety and Security at the French-held company Veolia. In the United States, Veolia provides public transit management services to transit agencies. The company currently has over 70 contracts in the US and Canada.
    I don’t know, maybe it was the punch our neighbors were serving their adult guests, but all of this sounded extremely interesting and exciting. Maybe it was because I had recently been to a City Council meeting and heard about a public transit initiative in Alamance County of North Carolina that could serve our area.
    Anyway, I had never been to a birthday party at which I encountered an articulate person who was willing to be interviewed. I’m grateful that Shelly was there. [Our questions are in italics.]

Shelly, please tell us a bit more about your company. What does “French-held” signify?
    The company’ 50% Veolia and 50% Caise De Dupot. We are actually going through a name change and we will be called Transdev in August. The ownership will remain the same.

How many employees does Veolia have in North America in order to service those 70 contracts in the US and Canada? I’m just trying to get a feel for its size.
    I think we are around ten thousand, working in transit.

Just for perspective, is the company’s mission in other countries more or less the same as it is in the US? What else does Veolia do? Is it anywhere involved in the transport of commodities as well as of people?
    It is similar, but in other countries we have bus, tram, train, ferry.

I understand that as a result of the Alamance County transit initiative mentioned above, you alerted your company of a possible business opportunity. What was it about the project that made you think Veolia might be able to help?
    I believe we have the expertise to help Burlington build and maintain a cost-effective public transit system. That is what we do and we do it very well.

I feel like such a clunk-head. What’s involved in building and maintaining a public transit system?
    You have to have the capital to purchase the buses, a fueling system, a facility to house the staff with bus parking and maintenance activities, computer and phone systems, dispatch systems, and of course manpower.

And what makes the difference between a transit system that’s cost-effective and one that isn’t?
    Poor route planning, inefficient buses, poor management.

Almost everyone is familiar with transit, has ridden a bus, a train, a subway, etc., but few people understand how it all happens or why local governments need the sort of help that a company like Veolia can provide. What are Veolia’s clients most in need of?
    Our clients are in need of a cost-effective system, that is run in a safe and efficient manner. We are industry leaders in operations, safety, and maintenance.

Are you saying that Veolia basically operates the system, ensures that operations are safe, and maintains the buses and trains and terminals and whatever?
    Yes, we manage all the functions of the system.

Why is it advantageous for a local government to hire Veolia to do all that for them rather than hire their own employees, et cetera?
    Local governments don’t have the staff, or in some cases the knowledge to acquire the staff. We have national vendor contracts for parts and equipment. We also have HR support, safety support, operation expertise.

As the previous questions imply, I think of transit systems as public entities. But are there private ones also?
    They are generally pubic, but is some cases we convert from being a public entity to a private entity, like we did several years ago in New Orleans and Nassau County Long Island.

What does that mean? What changes when a transit system goes from being public to being private? I guess it starts to being run for a profit? Do fares go up? What else is different?
    Veolia would assume all the responsibilities and report to a board. There would not be a public transit division of the city – they are not needed.

Have New Orleans’s and Nassau County’s experiences been positive? What improved? What declined?
    We have saved them money and built them a more efficient system. Unfortunately, we streamline operations, and jobs may be less plentiful. Or, for example, they may have twenty supervisors doing a job and we can make it work and work better with ten.

Veolia’s a French company. Is that just an insignificant matter of fact, or are there historical reasons why a French company should be involved in this world-wide?
    Veolia wanted to get into the US market because US operations are profitable and a good fit for Veolia in Europe.

Okay, that sort of explains why Veolia is here in the US, but how, where, and when did Veolia get started? I do have the impression that public transportation may be “further advanced” in Europe than it is in America. Is that correct?
    Yes, transit is advanced in Europe and funded differently from the way it is in the States. It has better infrastructure and it is more user friendly.

What other companies do anything similar to what Veolia does?
    Our big competitors are MV Transit, First Group, and Keolis.

You told me thatVeolia has about 70 contracts in the US and Canada. How many contracts would you estimate those three competitors have altogether?
    I am not sure actually.

How did you find your way to Veolia? What previous education, training, or experience got you into transportation or transit generally? To what extend did chance play a role?
    My previous experience managing multi-properties with Liberty Mutual, where United Parcel Service (UPS) was a client of mine, helped me transition into public transit safety. My safety and training background was applicable to public transit. It’s just that now I have to help move people instead of commodities.

Liberty Mutual is an insurance company, isn’t it? What do you mean by “managing multi-properties”? What are “multi-properties”?
    I provided safety services to multiple locations.

You didn't mention chance...Did it play no role?
    Yes, chance definitely played a role. I think they were looking for more females too!

You have a high-ranking position in Veolia. Please tell us what you are responsible for.
    As VP for Safety and Security, I have director oversight for the following: Compliance (Federal Transit Administration, Department of Transportation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration), Driver Education and Training, Security, Drug and Alcohol, and employee safety recognition. I have five direct reports located strategically in geographical regions.

Wow, Shelly, that sounds like a lot of responsibility, a lot of things to be overseeing. I guess each of the five areas you listed falls under one of your five direct reports? What determines their strategic geographical regions? I guess the one for Compliance is located in Washington, DC – that sort of thing?
    I break up the geographic regions by areas of the country and employee count/bus totals.

What’s a typical workday or workweek for you? I imagine that you travel a lot?
    I do travel almost every week, usually starting on a Monday and returning on Thursday. I interact with our local safety departments and management teams, handle critical accident events, manage my staff, and handle safety and labor issues.

At the public hearing I attended about Alamance County’s transit project, I was struck by the diversity of opinions about it, pro & con, and the strength of the feelings that came with them. What has been your own experience of communities’ initial reactions to proposals for “mass transit”? Sometimes these discussions seem to drag on for years. What are the key considerations? What do communities get hung up on?
    I think the overall challenge is paying for a service that works for the majority. In a lot of cities, the system is designed for the urban poor or those with mobility challenges. Communities don’t typically understand how to set up and run a transit system, and that’s why they hire us. Veolia is typically challenged by funding issues locally. In some cases, a tax has to be approved for transit. Some tax-paying constituents do not understand that transit is vital for people who provide services they typically use, like a fast-food worker, hotel staff, and many others. They hate paying a tax for something they perceive as not useful, but if they really thought about it, they would see how it is vital.
Copyright © 2014 by Morris Dean

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  1. Do you think your city or town operates that public transit system you enjoy? Think again, for likely it doesn't. Today's interviewee explains why.