Meet Adam Howell: ‘I like to solve problems for the betterment of a group’

What: Making the Connections is a series of stories about the people and processes bringing Wake County’s transit investments to life

Who: Adam Howell

Role: Administrator, Transit Planning Advisory Committee

Degrees: Bachelor of Science, mechanical engineering, University of Maryland-Baltimore County; Master of City and Regional Planning with a specialization in transportation and urban infrastructure planning, Morgan State University, Baltimore.

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His title “TPAC administrator” might seem pretty pedestrian given the role that Adam Howell is playing now that the transit investment voters approved last year has begun bringing the Wake Transit Plan to life.

Cat-herder, buck-stopper, ball-juggler, liaison or mediator could more aptly describe Howell, a former transit planner for the Town of Cary, and the newly created position he began Aug. 21 for the TPAC — or the Transit Planning Advisory Committee.

“When I applied, I said I needed clarification on what to expect,” Howell said. “They said, ‘You need to know and be involved in everything that is Wake Transit.” I looked at them and said, ‘Is that all?’ So every project you see in the books, I’m a part of the conversation.”

Those projects include more extensive and more frequent bus service, new bus rapid transit corridors, a commuter rail line between Garner and Durham, more bus stop amenities and new bus facilities and stations. All are part of the 10-year Wake Transit Plan, a vision laid out before voters approved the half-cent sales tax to help pay for it in November 2016.

As work on implementing the plan got underway after the vote, decisions on the ground rules for investing the transit money and setting priorities among the projects had to be made. A few months in, it became clear that the complexity of coordinating the wishes of 12 Wake municipalities and the county itself, managing mounds of paperwork and agreements and keeping stakeholders fully informed required that someone be designated an administrator.

Enter Adam Howell – the liaison between the TPAC and the governing boards of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and GoTriangle.

Those boards and the Wake County Board of Commissioners created the TPAC to recommend how best to implement elements of the transit plan. The committee’s members are representatives from Wake County, CAMPO, GoRaleigh, GoCary and GoTriangle, municipal governments and the Research Triangle Foundation. Currently, Chip Russell, director of community development for Wake Forest, chairs the TPAC, and Shannon Cox, senior transportation planner in Apex, is vice chair.

“His job is intense. It’s a lot of work, but it’s administering a funding program, which is what we do all the time here,” said Shelby Powell, deputy director of CAMPO, where Howell’s position is housed. “This is a new program so everyone is trying to feel their way through how it will be developed and implemented. Everyone is interested in making sure they have a voice in the process.”

A whole new ballgame

The Wake Transit Plan has four main goals of connecting the region, connecting all of the county’s communities, creating frequent and reliable urban mobility and enhancing access to transit. GoTriangle is the area’s regional transit provider, and GoRaleigh and GoCary are the only two other entities providing fixetransit service. The county’s other 10 towns will be part of a Community Funding Areas program that will award matching funds from the transit tax for projects that the TPAC recommends for approval.

The county itself maintains its own on-demand service for those who do not live within a city or town. TRACS, as the service is known, is also eligible to receive money through the Wake Transit Plan as the population grows.

“I have to be in tune to a group’s specific interests as well as address different concerns and issues at all times,” Howell said. “The majority of our conversations this year have centered on GoCary, GoRaleigh and GoTriangle and Wake County, but once the Community Funding Areas get ramped up, all of these towns will come to the table with how and what type of service they want implemented for their residents. Then it’s going to be a whole new ballgame, in a good way.”

Each of the 10 fiscal years of the Wake Transit Plan requires its own work plan outlining what should be built, created or funded that particular year – a work plan that has to be put together by the professionals at the transit agencies and municipalities, released for public comments, revised, presented to the TPAC for recommendations and then adopted by the CAMPO and GoTriangle boards.

Conversations about what to include in the FY 2019 Work Plan currently are underway, and those conversations require having to decide which agency’s requests to cut or postpone to match revenue projections for the year. Howell is in the middle of it all.

“I’m a people person, I’m a listener and I’m a mediator. I like to solve problems for the betterment of a group,” Howell said. “All of those things are part of this job. I love it.”

What will transportation be in 2088?

For Howell, it was a short film from Honda, of all things, in 2008 that inspired him to put his mechanical engineering degree behind and to pursue a master’s degree in transit planning. The film, called “Mobility 2088,” asked thinkers around the world to anticipate what transportation would look like 80 years in the future.

“It was fascinating,” said Howell, who grew up the son of educators in a rural area of Maryland. “It had a wide variety of responses and focused on pure innovation. It pushed the limits of how you should view our current transportation system in terms of technology, functionality and environmental impact. That got me into wanting a hybrid between urban planning, transportation and public health because air pollution is one of the leading causes for public health issues.”

In graduate school in Baltimore, Howell focused his research on the effects that freight transportation has on climate change. He chose the subject after an epiphany during a transportation conference in Washington, D.C., when a presenter showed a chart outlining the increased demand for moving freight over the next 40 years.

‘The amount of pollution from that alone was quintuple the rate of everything else. It was scary to look at.,” Howell said. “A politician from Vermont pointedly asked, ‘How do I know the impacts of freight transportation on air pollution? How do we not know that?’ And that became my thesis.”

Howell created a theoretical system to model the pollution in real time and created an award-winning online tool that allowed freight companies, governments and private agencies to track it. His work led Baltimore to study how its infrastructure affected the ways trucks moved in and out of the port there.

“In order to go from the port north on I-95, trucks had to travel through a residential neighborhood,” Howell said. “The lights were not timed, so there was a lot of stop and go, stop and go. They were able to reroute how trucks got to I- 95 with no lights, mitigating the air pollution effects to people who live around there. It was awesome.”

Howell also was able to work for the Maryland Department of Transportation as part of a co-op program while in graduate school. He was responsible for managing the state’s transportation projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal stimulus program signed into law in February 2009.

Once Howell earned his master’s degree in 2012, he applied to 85 jobs around the world that had some relation to planning – including one in Cary, a town he’d never heard of. A man with an appealing Southern drawl called him up and invited him down to interview for a position as a transit planner.

“The more I read about Raleigh and Cary, at the time, for a planner, you either wanted to be in Detroit because of the massive blight to help bring it back or in the Triangle,” Howell said. “The Triangle is one of the most rapidly growing metro areas in the country. How do you grapple with that challenge? That’s a planner’s dream.”

Always getting a little bit better

With more than a million people now living in Wake County and more on the way every day, Howell is grateful that leaders had the vision to create a transit plan to help the area remain competitive and livable and to advocate the half-cent tax to help pay for it. Already, the transit investment has brought increases in bus frequency and routes for GoCary, GoRaleigh and GoTriangle through the FY 2018 Work Plan.

With nine work plans to go, each building on the other, Howell recently realized how much his work mirrors his body-building passion. The 32-year-old spends nearly two hours a day in the gym – four hours, if he’s preparing for a competition – always wanting to get just a little bit better.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s the same for Wake Transit,” he said. “There are little things we can do along the way to make tweaks and improvements that will make it unbeatable. Each year is one mile at a time.”

Whether building bodies or bridges, Howell concentrates each day on improvement. Powell, who is Howell’s boss at CAMPO, calls him a conscientious guy with a great personality, which makes him easy to work with for the broad spectrum of personalities he encounters each day.

“While I have zero authority, I can’t tell anybody what to do, I can provide strong levels of advisement to parties to make sure things move forward,” Howell said. “I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you the implications of it if you don’t do it. Diplomacy. That’s better than being the dictator.”

Should “diplomat” go before or after ball-juggler?