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WTS GNY 2019 Annual Dinner – Keynote by Diannae Ehler

By Adrienne Zicklin Kanter

Wednesday, January 30th marked the date of the WTS Greater New York Chapter’s 39th Annual Meeting and 22nd W/M/S/DBE Expo, which this year was held at the Manhattan Club in Midtown Manhattan. It was a fantastic evening; an opportunity to network with so many in the transportation industry, learn about a number of accomplished leaders in the field as they were each presented with an award, and hear an energetic and informative presentation by Diannae Ehler, Director of Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ).

After welcoming remarks by Alexa Gangemi, the 2018-19 WTS GNY president, the award recipients were announced:

  • Rosa Parks Diversity Leadership Award – Dr. Angela Battle, revenue contract administrator at NJ Transit
  • Member of the Year – Tiffany Cummings, P.E., transportation engineer at Stantec
  • Employer of the Year – HDR
  • Innovative Transportation Solutions Award – MTA Reimagines the Customer Experience: Experiential Design Standards, Ground-Breaking Digital Communication, and Environment-Specific Retail Transform the Customer Journey.  Project Team: Chief Architect Linda Tonn (attending for Kristina Sansotta), Director of Arts and Design Sandra Bloodworth, Director of Advertising and Media Lucy Zachman and Director of Retail Leasing and Management Leah Bassknight.
  • Honorable Ray LaHood Award – Stephen Dilts, senior vice President-New York office leader, HNTB
  • Honorary Memberships Presentation – Penny Eickemeyer, Associate Director of Research – University Transportation Research Center at the City College of New York; David Bragdon, Executive Director, TransitCenter; Rick Cotton, Executive Director, PANYNJ
  • Iris Berman Memorial Scholarship – Margarita Calbitaza, P.E., senior engineer, MTA Metro-North Railroad

The highlight of the evening was the presentation by Diannae Ehler who was enthusiastically introduced by the Port Authority’s Director of Planning and Regional Development and former WTS GNY President Mary K Murphy.  During her 35-year-plus tenure at the PANYNJ, Ms. Ehler has served in many roles in five different departments including Engineering, Ports, Aviation, the Chief Operating Office and Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals.  “While my first love after college was construction, I discovered a passion for facility management when I was the manager of facilities at LaGuardia Airport and operations while managing the Lincoln Tunnel. I find the 24-7 nature of the work, including the need to make quick decisions under stress, addictive.”

She remarked that working the in the public sector is not easy.  For those who require praise to be motivated or who cannot tolerate public criticism, this isn’t an ideal career path.  “It requires a strong constitution, a toughness, and plenty of heart!”

Reflecting back on her career, Ms. Ehler focused on how her team has challenged themselves to raise the bar in terms of customer service; break with traditional means and methods; and implement operational changes that had never been tried and whose outcomes posed some risk.  She noted that the Port Authority operates some of the busiest transportation facilities in the world, and that the agency is currently pursuing a $32 billion capital plan, an unprecedented level of both replacing and restoring its infrastructure. Approximately one third of that investment is dedicated to tunnels, bridges and terminals and represents 120 active capital projects.

For the George Washington Bridge project, dubbed “Restore the George,” which is made up of 11 projects and worth $1.9 billion, it is expected that eight of those projects will be advancing in construction concurrently.  To accomplish this, “we created an integrated project team during design and construction; expanded lane closure windows to provide longer and more productive work periods for our contractors and created integrated program scheduling to optimize lane closures.”

Another large project for which this strategy has been highly effective is the Palisades Interstate Parkway Helix Replacement, called the “PIP Helix” for short.  Initially, due to unforeseen circumstances, the PIP Helix contractor was six months behind schedule.  By intervening quickly and working collaboratively, the team was able to bring the project back on track.  It is expected that the new PIP Helix will be operational this summer.

These two projects are reflective of the TB& T’s entire capital plan.  “TBT’s “on-time” performance in terms of making key project milestones went from 54 percent in 2017 to 82 percent in 2018 – a 30 percent improvement in one year,” stated Ms. Ehler.

Additionally, she said that “our annual spending went from 76 percent of what was budgeted in 2017 to 110 percent in 2018 – also representing a 30 percent increase in performance.  While this sounds counterintuitive, she highlighted that in fact, this allowed them to complete “designs on time and accelerate construction, thereby cutting soft costs associated with managing projects as well as financial expense – and the public will have the benefit of having the work completed sooner.”

Ms. Ehler had one more topic she was eager to discuss; “her home-away-from-home, the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT).” She immediately acknowledged that it “takes a lot of heart to work at the bus terminal,” a major trans-Hudson transportation facility operating beyond capacity and described by the comedian John Oliver as ‘’the single worst place on Planet Earth.’”  Nonetheless, she identifies her three years leading the effort to improve the quality of the commute for PABT customers as one of her greatest accomplishments.

PABT supports more than a quarter of a million passenger trips each weekday, while relying on a delicate network of roadways.  And, Ms. Ehler points out, it often must handle additional customers when other systems are encountering operational issues.  After a 2014 series of town hall meetings, it became clear that customers and local elected officials were frustrated with the lack of reliability provided by the PABT and the bus carriers.  “Within a month of the first town hall I attended, we had obtained support from the Port Authority Board and two months later, they approved $90 million for the PABT Quality of Commute Improvement Program.”

Ms. Ehler assembled a team of experts to design a program that would address communications, as well as operational and infrastructure issues.  Customer communications received a great deal of attention, and through participation in town hall events, public hearings, and newly implemented quarterly “commuter chat nights,” management had an opportunity to receive both customer complaints and suggestions. New mechanisms such as the installation of customer information kiosks as well as the introduction of an app called “MyTerminal,” have provided customers with improved and more transparent access to travel information.

Physical improvements also have improved customers’ experience.  These have included a complete replacement of all the public restrooms, enhanced lighting and ceiling replacement on three levels, vertical circulation improvements such as a new escalator between the subway and lower level of the south wing.

Lastly, Ms. Ehler discussed a variety of operational changes that have greatly improved on-time bus service performance.  One such change was encouraging carriers to reduce the amount of time allotted to drivers for trips between their New Jersey parking lots and the PABT, thereby lessening the number of buses arriving to the terminal early which was causing significant congestion on the ramps and in the terminal.  Another effort involved making changes to the traffic patterns to prioritize buses over cars and trucks traveling through the Lincoln Tunnel.  Yet another significant change was the reconfiguring of gate assignments, which also diminished congestion and reduced crowding as people waited for their buses.

She stressed that “implementing these changes would have had little to no impact or may even have made the condition worse” had the initiatives not been thoroughly coordinated.  Their efforts have paid off though, and New Jersey Transit’s on-time performance has risen from 84 percent to 90 percent with many nights as high as 94 percent.

Ms. Ehler concluded by expressing her appreciation to her staff, acknowledging that “managing a terminal that is operating beyond capacity is not an easy task – I am grateful for my staff’s ingenuity and dedicated efforts.  They make a difference every day!”  She then further underscored that her department’s success is the  “result of teamwork and partnerships, leveraging data, taking risks,” and benefiting from the support  of senior executives.

Much gratitude to all of those who made the event such a success; Jane Huang, Daniela Zellers, Han Pham, Laura Eng, Fione Robe, Sophia Brooks, Theresa Cannone, Bibi Khan, Sofia Berger, and Sheriza Majid.

 

 

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