December 21, 2009
Check the classifieds in this issue for information about numerous managerial and supervisory positions!
Reviewing the Best and Worst of Times for Public Transit in 2009
BY WILLIAM MILLAR, APTA President
To quote Dickens in reference to last year: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Who would have expected the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—with $8.4 billion for public transit investment and $8 billion as a “down payment” for high-speed rail—to have such an impact on public transportation?
Who would have expected that high-speed rail would move from “maybe one day” to “the process has begun”?
And who would have predicted the worst recession since the time of FDR? Unemployment is still high, and with 58 percent of transit trips for work purposes, it’s no wonder that ridership has retreated from 2008’s record levels. I’m optimistic by nature, but I don’t see state and local revenues turning around too quickly in the next year, and there’s no indication that sales tax revenues are turning around either.
So looking back—for good, for ill—2009 has been an extraordinary year indeed. Here are just a few reminders of what has taken place.
What’s the most obvious economic benefit of public transit? Clearly that answer is—jobs! Earlier this year, APTA released its “Job Impacts Report,” which found that public transit supports 1.7 million jobs in total and directly employs 380,000 people. In addition, every $1 billion investment in public transit translates into an average of 36,000 jobs. And, with the passage of ARRA, 252,000 jobs in public transit are being either supported or created.
We focused a lot of time and energy on legislative efforts this year, and have ARRA, record 2010 federal appropriations, a transit-friendly $500 billion surface transportation authorization proposal, and progress on climate change legislation to show for it. Much work remains to be done, but I believe we’ll see a new surface transportation bill enacted in 2010.
Thanks to an infusion of $8 billion, high-speed rail is on the way! To guide development of all type of rail in the United States, the Federal Railroad Administration released its Preliminary National Rail Plan, which calls for improving performance, better integrating all transportation modes by more accurately determining capacity and where intermodal connections can be improved, identifying projects of national significance, and increasing public awareness of the issues and potential benefits from improvements via an extensive public outreach effort.
In June, our study “Challenge of State and Local Funding Constraints on Transit Systems: Effects on Service Fares, Employment and Ridership” found that more than 80 percent of public transit systems responding saw flat or decreased funding from local, regional, and state revenue streams. Among those systems facing this decrease in financial support, nearly nine of out of 10 (89 percent) were forced to raise fares, cut service, or do both.
Ridership was also affected, declining by 3.8 percent in the first nine months of 2009 compared to the same period last year. Trips on all the major modes of public transportation—bus, light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail—were down, while paratransit (demand-response) and trolleybus were the only two modes that saw increases.
But don’t forget we’re comparing 2009 statistics with 2008, our highest ridership in 52 years! So given that fact, and given the status of the economy, ridership still was better than expected.
This downturn in ridership is a reflection of our difficult economic times. When people don’t have jobs, they don’t have a daily commute; when people don’t have jobs, they don’t go shopping as much. But just like the unemployment rate, public transit use is a lagging economic indicator. We should therefore expect that when employment rebounds, so should transit ridership.
Voters on Nov. 3 passed pro-transit ballot initiatives in Colorado, Michigan, and Maine, while defeating one anti-transit measure in Ohio. With the successful passage of two additional transit-related initiatives earlier in the year and a special election on Dec. 8—where voters in Oklahoma City approved a one-cent sales tax extension—these results mean that in 2009, 8 out of 11 public transit ballot measures were passed—a success rate of 73 percent! These “yes” votes for public transportation can mean only one thing: the public wants more public transportation services and will tax themselves to gain it—even when unemployment is high and economic uncertainty is foremost in so many people’s minds.
New Campaign—and a Strategy of Telling Our Story
This past year APTA introduced a campaign, “Public Transportation Takes Us There,” that emphasizes how public transportation helps the nation move—by focusing on “Three Es (economy, energy, and the environment) and a Q (leading to a better quality of life).” This campaign continues to offer transit systems an array of advocacy tools they can use in their local communities—from sample letters to the editor to press releases.
We also began to implement APTA Chair M.P. Carter’s signature initiative, “Telling Our Story.” Those of us who have been around for a while know about—and often speak of—these benefits. Through Telling Our Story, we’re continuing those efforts—and expanding them. We’re using social media, such as Facebook, and we’ve developed sample press releases and fact sheets to help all of you shout this story out to anyone, anywhere, who will listen!
So take advantage of Congress being in recess—and home!—to tell our story one more time. Be sure to make an appointment, or—better yet—bring your representative to your property or business. Let that individual see how we’re putting Americans to work in green public transit jobs.
It has been a busy and difficult year. Despite the difficulties, however, you can see in the pages that follow that we’ve made progress in advancing public transit, but we need to do more.
As Leonardo DaVinci said: “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
We need to keep “happening to things,” by continuing to tell our story. Happy Holidays and, hopefully, Happier New Year!