Chicago Transit Authority CIO John Vasilj will host a meeting this fall for his colleagues to collaborate on technology initiatives.

All Aboard

The nation's transit IT leaders join forces to tackle tough challenges.

It took two and a half years poring over thousands of details for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority to complete its enterprise architecture initiative. So in February, when WMATA CIO Suzanne Peck offered to share those details with her counterparts at transit agencies around the nation, they jumped at the opportunity. "We saved them substantial time and effort by having already done our enterprise architecture work," she says.

A few months later, at a June meeting in New York, Peck gained invaluable information from the host city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority about closed caption security cameras in stations. Meanwhile, the Long Island Rail Road CIO took note of what the Dallas IT chief had to say about cloud computing, the Chicago Transit Authority CIO started working with Peck's team on his enterprise architecture plan and the Utah Transit Authority CTO learned about customer-facing communications from his counterpart in Boston.

"We all have the same general work to do," says Peck. "And like lemmings to the sea, we will all head toward the best solutions."

So when the group broached the idea of turning those informal get-togethers into an official organization, everyone was enthusiastic. "The idea just gelled among the group," says Chicago Transit Authority CIO John Vasilj, first vice president of the consortium. The members chose officers to represent different quadrants of the country -- the East Coast (Washington, D.C.), the Heartland (Chicago), the Southwest (Dallas) and the West Coast (San Francisco Bay Area) -- and it nominated the most enthusiastic members to serve as the founding board members.

"I think it's absolutely beneficial to have this type of group," says Laura DiDio, principal analyst at Information Technology Intelligence Corp. "Look at the business case here: It's federal, state and municipal agencies, which are usually underfunded, robbing Peter to pay Paul. For years, the mantra has been 'You've got to do more with less.' Well, this is an example of how they're doing more with less. ... This is really a case of 'In unity, there is strength.' "

In October, Vasilj is set to host the Transit CIO Consortium's first meeting as a chartered organization, and about two dozen of the industry's IT leaders are planning to meet in Chicago to discuss such topics as enterprise architecture, security and cloud computing. Then it's Dallas in February. In the meantime, the membership -- up to about 35 by August, with the addition of the Orange County Transportation Authority and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency CIOs -- has been growing "in leaps and bounds" as word gets out about the consortium, according to Peck.

Consortium members plan to tackle these technology
issues in the next year:

  • IT governance
  • Resource allocation
  • IT consolidation
  • Security
  • Closed-circuit TV surveillance
  • Customer communications
  • PCI compliance
  • Cloud computing
  • Enterprise architecture
  • Contactless fares
  • Patent issues

With increasingly small budgets, it's more important than ever for transit authorities to find smarter ways to get their work done, says Vasilj. "It's been very refreshing and kind of humbling to see that many CIOs from mass transit are facing the same problems," he adds. But the meetings aren't just theoretical discussions; the members are actually rolling up their sleeves and collaborating on initiatives.

For instance, following President Barack Obama's call for transparent government data, most agencies have been working to make bus, rail and paratransit data more available to the public. Because of consortium information sharing on the topic, WMATA, about to launch its transparent data set initiative, was able to determine which data sets leadership transit agencies had already made publicly available. By the end of October, WMATA will make all these rail and bus data sets available as well. Using consortium information, Peck expects agencies will advance each others' public-data initiatives, exchanging the lead in providing transparent data set information.

"As a consortium, we allow each other to leapfrog," Peck says. "It's really an advantage for the taught as well as the teacher."

Instant Gratification

Just about all the members say the consortium has already saved them time, money or both. Clair Fiet, CTO of the Utah Transit Authority, shaved months of work off his customer communications project by getting ideas from Portland's website and looking at letters of agreement that Massachusetts and Portland use when working with third-party application vendors. "I learned a lot from Gary," Fiet says of Gary Foster, CTO of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "We're not above borrowing from other people."

Foster echoes his comments. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority is about a year ahead of Massachusetts with regard to overall security, so when the IT heads of the MTA's Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North and New York City Transit gave a presentation on physical security, Foster passed along the information and contacts to a Massachusetts colleague.

"I've gotten more out of it than I've put into it already," Foster says of the consortium. "It's been real easy."

Foster has been in IT for years, but he worked in the finance industry until 2007, so having access to a group of IT leaders who specialize in transit is a new phenomenon for him. "This has been great for me because I'm kind of an outsider," he says. "The vertical space we're in is so narrow."

He has his work cut out for him. Many of the MBTA's applications were run by the business units, but as resources become increasingly scarce, he's been looking at technologies to increase efficiency. Just a few of the topics he's been exploring are cloud computing, payment card industry compliance and IT consolidation.

"For me, it's a confidence builder," Foster explains. "If you sit down and hear things that already make sense ... it helps build confidence in the strategies we have in place, or it helps me question them."

That's what happened with Vincent Mezzanotte, CIO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Long Island Rail Road. The MTA had been looking into cloud computing for e-mail. Mezzanotte had concerns regarding security, functionality, reliability and cost of ownership, and it was a lengthy discussion among the consortium that confirmed his feelings about cloud computing.

"I think we all walked away convinced that cloud computing wasn't something we should pursue within an organization as large and security sensitive as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority," he says. "It was very helpful to hear from other CIOs to validate our thoughts on this critical topic."

"I think that most of us have projects that ... were able to benefit from the consortium," Mezzanotte says. But the consortium has also been helpful in a general sense, he adds. CIOs don't have much time to attend training, and when they do, it's typically not very technical. "There are so many challenges associated with new technologies that surface," he says. "This consortium has proved to be a very effective and efficient way to learn and share ideas with our peers in the transportation industry."

Strength in Numbers

The consortium made a conscious deci­sion to limit membership to transit CIOs; vendors are not allowed to join. But, says Foster, it can be extremely valuable to hear from other CIOs about the types of relationships they have with vendors. They may even be able to come together as a group and ask vendors to alter their products based on their needs.

"I think it could be very powerful if we have a common voice saying, 'You've got to be this to serve our business,' " he says. "It's much easier to negotiate if we're all speaking from the same pulpit."

The consortium has already helped Foster deal with a patent dispute. A company with patents related to transit agency data recently approached the MBTA about its customer communications plans. Learning how other agencies have resolved the same issue helped the MBTA reach a much quicker resolution than it would have on its own, says Foster.

If the consortium had been in place when the company first began approaching agencies with its patent claims, they might have been able to work together as a group on the issue, adds Fiet.

"I suspect there are more things just like that out there waiting for us," he says. "One by one, when they pick us off, we're vulnerable. But as a group, we can fight it."l

Leaders of the Pack

The Transit CIO Consortium's founding officers and board members:

President Suzanne Peck, CIO, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

First Vice President John Vasilj, CIO, Chicago Transit Authority

Second Vice President Allan Steele, CIO, Dallas Area Rapid Transit

Secretary Ravi Misra, IT department manager, Bay Area Rapid Transit

John Duque, IT manager, Virginia Railway Express

Clair Fiet, CTO, Utah Transit Authority

Gary Foster, CTO, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

Sidney Gellineau, vice president of technology and information services, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit

Joel Golub, CIO, New Jersey Transit

Dave Hinrichs, CIO, Metropolitan Council/Metro Transit, Minneapolis-St. Paul

Vincent Mezzanotte, CIO, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Long Island Rail Road

Ron Nizer, IT director, Maryland Transit Administration

David Sullivan, senior vice president of technology, Hampton Roads Transit

Steven Teal, CIO, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North Railroad

Fred Wedley, retired CIO, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Long Island Rail Road

William Zebrowski, CIO, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Agency

James Schnepf
Sep 24 2010