He keeps safety on track (News and Observer)
RALEIGH — Pat Simmons is a bit of a safety nut.
When he rides his red 1986 BMW Airhead motorcycle downtown to the state Highway Building to work or to the Cary depot to catch a train, he’s all about accident prevention.
He wears a padded-fishbowl safety helmet that must be the fattest one you can buy. He cloaks his suit and tie with a dazzling yellow jacket so car drivers won’t stare through him on the highway.
And when he passes a driver engrossed in telephone chatter, he announces his presence with a toot of his 134-decibel air horn.
“So I watch for that,” Simmons says, grinning as he holds a fist to his ear to imitate a glassy-eyed driver on the phone. “And I’ll just touch the horn, to let people know I’m here.”
Safety is part of Simmons’ success at the state Department of Transportation, where he became the Rail Division’s first director in 1994.
The toll of deadly car-train crashes has been cut in half since then by a North Carolina innovation called the Sealed Corridor Program, a systematic approach to upgrading safety features at dangerous rail crossings – or closing them altogether.
The Federal Railroad Administration adopted the program as the safety standard for a planned national high-speed and intercity passenger rail network. And Simmons helped North Carolina join that initiative this year with a whopping $545 million share of President Barack Obama’s first investment in fast trains.
North Carolina won more rail money than all but six other states nationwide, and even more than the seven states in the train-intensive Northeast combined.
Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, says North Carolina beat out more urban states because it has built one of the two best state rail programs in the country. (California’s is the other.)
She credits Simmons and calls him “very focused and frugal.”
“A huge part of our decision on choosing which programs went forward was not only how good the projects were but how good the management teams behind those projects were,” Rae said. “One of the tipping points was the proven record of strong management and the team that Pat has assembled in North Carolina.”
Simmons, 58, is a Hickory native who grew up mostly in Wilmington. His father worked for the telephone company then known as Southern Bell. During his early childhood years in rural Tobaccoville, Pat picked up an interest in reading from a bookmobile that stopped at a country store.
After earning double degrees in psychology and marine biology at UNC-Wilmington, he spent a few years in Louisiana. He did marine archaeology work for an offshore drilling firm and learned about politics by writing grant applications for the parish government in Baton Rouge.
He returned to North Carolina and served as the first director for a rural transit agency in Boone before finding bus and train work at DOT.
Asked to explain his approach to railroading, Simmons recalls the first grant proposal he ever wrote. It was not about transportation, but about getting juvenile offenders back on track.
Between exams during his junior year at UNC-W, he applied for and won a research grant to find out whether family counseling for troubled teens and their parents could make a difference in changing their outlook and mending their ways.
The answer was yes.
“You observe human behavior, then you introduce changes and see how they change the behavior,” Simmons said. “It was the same scientific technique we used to establish the sealed corridor.”
That effort started with video cameras at a Charlotte rail crossing. Cars, trucks and even school buses ignored warning signals and drove around the crossing gates, to beat approaching trains.
DOT workers experimented with different devices including longer gates, quadruple gates and median barriers. They documented how effective each approach was in keeping drivers from straying into trouble on the tracks.
Sometimes when Simmons uses the scientific approach to test a pet theory about how to improve North Carolina’s railroads, the answer is no.
He thought there would be a demand for passenger trains from Charlotte to Wilmington, but marketing studies found none. He thought about building a depot between High Point and Greensboro, but passengers wanted to keep the stations downtown.
In 1994 North Carolina forged a pact with Virginia to develop fast train service from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., as part of a Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor that eventually could reach Georgia and Florida.
“Pat was the one that made that a reality,” said Rae. “He framed it up and got the details behind the idea together. He engaged Virginia and continues to try to help South Carolina.”
Virginia cared mainly about faster trains north of Petersburg and Richmond. North Carolina shouldered the big task of rebuilding a rail line, partly abandoned since 1980, that follows U.S. 1 from Raleigh to Petersburg.
Federal agencies last week signed off on DOT’s draft environmental statement for a Raleigh-to-Petersburg route. The action moves Simmons a big step forward in his effort to win more federal money – more than $3 billion for this 168-mi. segment alone – to build this key rail link between Southern states and the Northeast.
Travel time from Raleigh to Washington would drop by 2 hours, to just over 4 hours.
The planned top speed between Charlotte and Raleigh, for now, is 90 mph. That’s not “high-speed rail,” but Simmons says it will be a good investment for the state. The travel time from Raleigh to Charlotte will shrink by an hour to just over two hours – even with seven stops along the way.
“In the mid-90s we looked at speed, and speed costs money,” Simmons explained recently to a class of engineering students at N.C. State University. “The faster you go, the more it costs. We reckoned there is a sweet spot where you can offer frequent, reliable, time-competitive service, and you will have good patronage.”
David King was the deputy transportation secretary who put Simmons in charge of North Carolina’s rail ambitions in 1994. He watched Simmons deal patiently with critics who thought DOT should stick with highways.
“I think Pat’s greatest asset is perseverance,” said King, now general manager of Triangle Transit. “Long-term projects you’re investing in today for benefits tomorrow are sometimes hard to defend, but Pat’s been able to do that.”
Simmons pursues his rail mission with an air of quiet jollity. He says skeptics make him better at his job.
“People ask a lot of questions, because it’s different from what we’ve done for the last 30 or 40 years,” he told the NCSU students. “And that’s cool.
“One thing I find beneficial is for people to ask the critical questions. Because either I’ve got a good answer, or it ain’t worth doing.”
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BY BRUCE SICELOFF – Staff Writer
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