Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

December 10, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

METRO Light Rail


  • METRO Light Rail is getting a new CEO. The current CEO, Rick Simonetta, is leaving his post at the end of the year to work for a company that’s pursuing high speed rail projects across the country. Hear what Simonetta has to say about some of the successes, challenges and surprises he encountered while finishing the Valley’s 20-mile light rail starter line on time and on budget.
Guests:
  • Rick Simonetta - METRO Light Rail -
Category: Business/Economy

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Metro light rail will soon have a new CEO. Stephen Banta, executive director of operations for the Tri-Met Public Transit System in Portland, has accepted the job. He takes over as CEO at the end of the year. That's when the contract for current CEO, Rick Simonetta, will expire. Under Simonetta's leadership, metro light rail was built on time and on budget. He'll soon be taking on a new challenge with a company involved with high-speed rail projects across the country. Joining me now, for one last time as metro light rail's CEO, is Rick Simonetta. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us congratulations.

Rick Simonetta:
Thank you, Ted, it's nice to be with you again.

Ted Simons:
Why are you leaving? Were you asked to stay on?

Rick Simonetta:
I had a contract and the contract originally had five years associated with it. That would have been at the end of December of last year, but the end of December last year was when we were opening the 20-mile line and the board asked me to stay on for one more year and I did and it's been a great year. A lot of good ridership numbers. People are using light rail and it was time to move not last chapter of my career and I wanted to end it with consulting and I have a good opportunity with the URS corporation.

Ted Simons:
What is the URS corporation?

Rick Simonetta:
It's a major engineering and consulting organization. I think the second largest in the country. They've been involved in railroad and mass transit rail work for many, many years and want to play a big role in the whole push for high-speed rail in North America.

Ted Simons:
Including places like Arizona? It seems I'm hearing it talked about all over the place. What about us?

Rick Simonetta:
We hope the mountain west will be included in the national effort to welcome at high-speed rail. We've got large population centers and there's valid reason to connect places like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City -- places that are growing cities.

Ted Simons:
As far as metro light rail, when you took this job, you had expectations. Were they met?

Rick Simonetta:
They certainly were. The biggest expectation was build this thing on budget and on schedule. And that certainly was the largest challenge we faced in building the project because there are always surprises and unknowns that pop up. Market conditions changed and commodities weren't as readily available and if they were available, they were more expensive. Labor rates were going off the roof and gasoline prices high. But with everyone working hard and the objective of on time, on budget, always there before them, we did it and that's certainly my greatest reward seeing it happen and the credibility it brings to the region and the agency I've headed up for the last six years because we have a lot more rail we want to build.

Ted Simons:
Other than the market forces you mentioned, other surprises? What surprised you most -- let's put it that way -- looking back on the light rail project?

Rick Simonetta:
One was the number of archaeological finds we uncovered in the Tempe area. Not far from here and those were rich area where is the Indian culture flourished and came across burial graves and sites and pit houses and those things. And when that happened, you had to park the bulldozers and bring the archaeologists in with shovels and toothbrushes and they would spend time documenting what they found but it was a necessary and important thing to do. But those were surprises that weren't built in to the schedule. One of the other surprises that got media attention a couple years ago was the rail breaks where we had cracks in the rails once the temperatures got cold and while that's normal and would probably occur in any event, we had really a larger number of those than were expected and they were all occurring around a particular design feature so we had to mitigate that and it took a lot of good effort and we brought in the best experts from around the country. But got it done and those are the things you've got to get over when you build a major project like this.

Ted Simons:
Indeed. And you met those challenges. What do you see as future challenges with light rail here in town?

Rick Simonetta:
I think we've established the current standards into extensions and we've got the expertise necessary to do that. It's really the economy right now. The economy, of course, is -- is what contributes to the prop 400 fund that the voters approved a few years ago. It's what impacts the sales tax revenues that goes to the cities. And those are the sources of funds that are necessary to build and to operate the extensions of light rail. And because of the downturn in the economy, everything has been pushed become a bit. So there's a little disappoint in that but I'm confident over the next couple years, we're going to see a rebound and we're moving forward with the projects we can move forward with but we'd like to move even faster.

Ted Simons:
As far as moving faster, what about commuter trains. Not necessarily the high-speed bullet trains but the commuter trains from suburb to suburb?

Rick Simonetta:
There's two studies one is with the Maricopa association of governments, looking at opportunities for commuter rail. Operating along the union-Pacific lines or the Burlington northern Santa Fe lines and we've got opportunities out there. And the other one that gets publicity is the opportunity to connect Phoenix with Tucson. That's more intercity. But the same technology can apply and I'll be anxious to see what happens.

Ted Simons:
And now you're going on work with magnetic trains.

Rick Simonetta:
I had the opportunity to ride the MAGlev -- and we were clocked at 280 miles per hour. And it just didn't feel like we were going that fast. But we were.

Ted Simons:
I was going to say, when you're on these things, it's like an airplane. Going fast but don't realize it. You're sitting there, look at the bird going awfully slow?

Rick Simonetta:
It's sort of like that but it's very quiet. The issue with the MAGLEV, there's no contact, no friction. So you're not impacted with steel rims on steel rails or anything like that.

Ted Simons:
We know about bullet trains from Japan. Why are we so behind on this? And why is Arizona behind on any kind of commuter rail?

Rick Simonetta:
It's a matter of priorities. At the state and local level and we've been an automobile society but mass transit has made a huge comeback over the last 10-20 years and with the current administration looking creatively at things like high-speed rail maybe we'll find alternatives to driving our automobiles.

Ted Simons:
Congratulations. Thank you for joining us on "Horizon" on many occasions and good luck in the future.

Rick Simonetta:
Thank you, Ted.

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