APTA | Passenger Transport
January 18, 2010

In This Issue

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Transportation Regulators Energized by Challenges, Vision for Public Transit
BY KATHERINE LEWIS, Special to Passenger Transport

The Obama administration has ushered in a new era for public transportation with higher funding and renewed emphasis on safety, the environment, and new technology, according to DOT officials at a Jan. 12 session during the Transportation Research Board’s 89th Annual Meeting, Jan. 10-14 in Washington.

“To say that the world has changed is an understatement,” said Federal Railroad Administrator (FRA) Joseph Szabo, part of a panel of one dozen administration officials. “It’s a transformational time at FRA.”

The agency is implementing three key pieces of legislation: to develop new approaches to safety and risk reduction; to enhance FRA monitoring of Amtrak and better include state regulators; and to stimulate economic recovery and reinvestment. Looking just at the $10.5 billion aimed at developing high-speed rail, that is 200 times the previous year’s discretionary budget, Szabo said.

“It’s created an incredible excitement amongst the staff,” he said. “It’s all based on caffeine and sugar, but the level of energy is tremendous.”

Funding for research and development has doubled, Szabo said, allowing FRA to continue “to develop technology and practices to reduce the risk of accidents.” He mentioned the close call reporting program, real-time testing of rail conditions, automatic detection of cracks, and a national rail cooperative research program.

“To understand the Obama administration’s commitment to public transportation, you don’t really have to look beyond the [American] Recovery [and Reinvestment] Act [ARRA],” which boosted the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) budget 80 percent in one year, said FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff. ARRA “created an extraordinary challenge,” he continued. “We are very energized at FTA, as they are at FRA, about the president’s renewed commitment to public transportation.”

FTA has obligated 89 percent of its ARRA funds for projects around the country, which have not only created jobs but funded preventive maintenance and helped avoid service and job cuts. The comprehensive rail safety bill that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposed in December represented the first message ever to Congress exclusively focused on transit, Rogoff noted.

Just as aviation regulators harmonized safety rules to bring commuter planes in line with larger airplanes, the administration now wants to bring the same kind of consistency to rail transit rules, which have robust commuter standards alongside understaffed state agencies.

LaHood’s vision for transportation rests on strong federal leadership organized around the meeting of national needs, said Roy Kienitz, DOT undersecretary for policy. Key priorities include safety, good repair, economic competitiveness, livability, and environmental sustainability.

The largest challenge is monetary, between the economy and the erosion of gasoline tax revenue due to high gas prices and consumer preference for small and hybrid cars. 

"The gasoline tax is no longer a stable, reliable, and predictable source of revenue that grows at 1.5 percent per year. That’s a thing of the past,” Kienitz said. Relying solely on gas tax revenue, he added, would fall “probably $100 billion short of the average set of expectations in the community.”

Every surface mode of transportation that relies on the federal Highway Trust Fund needs to think about new sources of revenue, Rogoff said.

Safety issues and solutions can cut across all modes of transportation, so DOT regulators have built close working relationships to address concerns and share research, said Peter H. Appel, administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA). “The greater but important challenge is to integrate across the folks that are in this room,” Appel told the TRB audience. “We need to be talking to each other.”

One of RITA’s key areas of focus is professional development and the agency plans to expand its work to professional and high schools, Appel said in response to a question about academic partnerships.

The Federal Highway Administration is pleased by declining highway fatalities but is continuing to look at innovative ways to continue the trend, Administrator Victor M. Mendez said, encouraging the audience to take home a glow-in-the-dark safety band for pedestrian safety.

“If you want to advance safety, you can just use public transportation,” said Rogoff, quipping that FTA doesn’t have the budget for “cool yellow safety bands.”

In response to a query about whether federal agencies might look into international contractors, Rogoff said: “We are looking for complete and unquestionable compliance with Buy America for all recovery dollars.”

Kienitz said the Fiscal Year 2011 budget to be unveiled Feb. 1 will include details of an infrastructure bank that President Barack Obama promised during his campaign. But the administration weighs projects based on their outcomes, costs, and benefits, not on whether they rely on innovative financing. “Financing is interesting but not the highest-order thing,” he said.

In response to questions about the role of pedestrians and bicycles, Rogoff mentioned that he cycles to work in good weather. “We have done everything I think we can within current law to embrace the bicycle and pedestrian connection to transit into eligible transit funding purposes with very much the whole last-mile challenge in mind,” he said, promising that as policies and laws come up for renewal, the administration will take a fresh look with those modes of transportation in mind.

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