Emerson’s interest in transit and transportation planning emerged when he was boy.
“Growing up in the Boston area, we spent our summers in Orleans on Cape Cod,” he said. “There was a large sandy area that became my play spot. Using pieces of scrap wood, I’d build cities, roads and interchanges. That was my first palette for urban planning.”
His father’s passion for trains made a strong impression, too.
“When we drove back and forth between the Cape and the Boston area, Dad knew the train schedules ahead of time,” Emerson recalled fondly. “We’d stop at grade crossings when he knew a train was coming, and he’d get out and photograph them. My mother said the first words I ever spoke were, ‘Here comes the train!’” During his college years, Emerson spent summers driving a kiddy train at a small amusement park on Cape Cod.
When Emerson graduated in civil engineering from Tufts University, a professor who’d taken an interest in him suggested he apply to the Bureau of Public Roads.
“They hired me into their training program,” he said. For three years, he and other trainees learned “everything related to highways and the federal highway program.”
He spent almost a year in Atlanta, then nine months in Tucson working on an Interstate highway construction project. After a posting in Boston, he accepted a permanent assignment in Washington, D.C. working in a new environmental policy office for the re-named FHWA.
“NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) had recently passed,” Emerson said. “So FHWA created an environmental office to comply with that and other environmental laws.”
After obtaining his master’s degree in urban affairs from Virginia Tech and taking on progressively more responsibility in environmental planning at FHWA in Denver and again in Washington, he made the transition to FTA in 1981.
“It was a great opportunity to work with transit agencies analyzing alternatives for light rail and bus rapid transit,” he said. “The fact that this was a discretionary program excited me. We developed rules, procedures and criteria for project funding. While these have evolved over the years, much of the groundwork laid in the 1980s and 1990s can be seen the program today.
While at the FTA, Emerson also played a key role in developing New Starts policies and procedures. He helped write early policy statements that defined the New Starts process and created the first project evaluation and rating system. He also co-authored FTA’s Procedural and Technical Methods for Transit Project Planning manual that served as the principal guide for transit alternatives analysis planning.