Written by Amanda Maher
As the U.S. continues to urbanize, cities with existing public transit will be well served, while others will look to invest in such systems. But whether it’s the building of a new system or the maintenance and expansion of an existing system, one fact holds true—these projects are almost always complex, controversial and expensive. Increasingly, policymakers are looking toward public-private partnerships, or P3s, as a way of moving these projects forward.
Integration of the private sector offers many benefits, from more creative financing solutions to deadline-driven project management. What typically gets less attention, however, is how policymakers can leverage P3s to deliver an array of community benefits.
Colorado’s Eagle P3 provides an example of this. When Colorado voters approved the FasTracks plan in 2004, it included aggressive plans for expanding the Regional Transportation District (RTD) across the Denver metro region. The Eagle P3 is one component of that expansion; the $2.2 billion project comprises the East Rail and the Gold Line, the first segment of the Northwest Rail Line, the procurement of 54 commuter rail cars and a new commuter rail maintenance facility. In 2010, RTD entered into a 34-year agreement with Denver Transit Partners (DTP) – a special purpose company led by Fluor Enterprises, Uberior Investments and Laing Investments, among others. Per the agreement, DPT would design, build, finance (with $450 million), operate and maintain the project. DPT also agreed to participate and hire from among the newly established RTD-WIN workforce development program.
RTD-WIN (“Workforce Investment Now”) is an effort to train low-income, underserved residents in the communities affected by the rail system’s expansion in order to ensure they have an opportunity to work directly on the project. “The lower socio-economic population, the minority, Hispanic, poor black or poor white kid – we know those communities are affected disproportionately when it comes to unemployment, and that’s what we’re going after,” explained RTD General Manager Phil Washington in a Denver Business Journal article. “We’re not expecting that all the jobs that all the contractors have will go to these kids. If there are 20 welding jobs, maybe [RTD-WIN participants] will get five.”
A $2.2 billion project can certainly have a major impact; the Eagle P3 is expected to create 3,000 jobs during construction alone—a number that does not include the jobs that will be necessary to operate and maintain the rail cars and tracks down the line.
The reality is that there will likely be more jobs than there are local workers. That’s why the RTD-WIN training and employment program is so important. “We want to build the Colorado workforce,” said Kenn Hardin, RTD’s business opportunity and outreach officer. “We have people in Colorado who are unemployed, and we can systematically develop a Colorado workforce. And if we have these people ready, they [DTP] will hire them.”
RTD-WIN has streamlined the training offered by workforce development agencies and community colleges in order to move residents through the skills training necessary for landing a job in the transportation, infrastructure and construction industries. Some will be placed on the Eagle P3 project; others will find local employment elsewhere. The end goal is to help residents find well-paying, secure employment opportunities. The Eagle P3 was a way to launch those efforts in earnest.
“Typically, what happens is people go out and get trained, but there’s no jobs to put them into,” said Hardin. “We actually have viable jobs, so people aren’t saying, ‘Now that I’m trained, what can I do?’”
Having a private sector partner committed through specific contractual language has driven the program’s success: Since RTD-WIN launched in 2011, more than 600 residents have found direct employment on RTD transit projects, Eagle P3 and others, and the program has become a national model for tying workforce development programs to infrastructure investments. To learn more, read the case study, What Works: Workforce Development Model Benefits Those Impacted by Denver’s Transit Expansion.