APTA | Passenger Transport
January 31, 2011

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TRB Session Considers Obama Administrationís Focus on Transit
BY KATHERINE LEWIS, Special to Passenger Transport

President Barack Obama’s decision to highlight public transit in his State of the Union address demonstrates how seriously his administration takes high-speed rail and infrastructure investments, according to DOT officials who spoke at a Jan. 26 session during the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) 90th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

“We’re all excited to be in the State of the Union,” said Polly Trottenberg, DOT assistant secretary for transportation policy, referring to Obama’s promise on Jan. 25 to redouble efforts to rebuild America’s infrastructure and expand high-speed rail across the country. “For those of us who work in transportation, it was pretty exciting.”

Indeed, elevating a state of good repair to a major policy and investment focus is one of the five key elements of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s strategic plan, as described by Therese W. McMillan, deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

“Reinvesting in the billions of dollars of transportation infrastructure we have … has been a significant focus area for the administrator and myself,” McMillan said. “We have, at FTA, emphasized very much this year the need to see state of good repair investments—not only in significant formula programs, but also discretionary.”

She spoke about FTA’s efforts to fundamentally reorganize the New Starts program, the flagship method for federal partnerships with state and local governments in capital investment for rail and bus corridor expansion projects. Instead of evaluating only the cost-effectiveness of proposals, officials want to consider environmental, economic development, and community benefits as well.

“There had not been a sufficient and deep consideration of all the various factors that need to be brought to bear,” McMillan said.

Last year, she said, FTA received more than 2,000 comments in an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking looking at what criteria should be considered alongside cost-effectiveness. After considering this input, FTA will issue a notice of proposed rulemaking this spring or summer.

In addition to local partnerships, FTA is committed to the DOT partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, McMillan noted.

Meanwhile, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has undergone a huge transformation during the past two years, said Deputy Administrator Karen Rae, shifting from its specific focus on rail safety and Amtrak to responsibility for the administration’s goal of ultimately giving 85 percent of the population access to high-speed rail.

“It’s a little bit like running a marathon while having open heart surgery, but it has been exciting and exhilarating,” she said, crediting a number of partners in the endeavor. “We’re really talking about creating a network for the future.… This is the first time the rail part of that has been an integrated part of the conversation.”

The next steps include moving the federal dollars out the door, and “we have to build human and institutional capacity,” Rae said. “We didn’t have that skill and capacity when we were starting the space program. We are doing much the same here. We must increase our ability to educate and communicate.”

Amid all these new goals and programs, safety remains the highest priority for DOT, said Robert L. Bertini, deputy administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA). He also noted that the administration has signed three international agreements aimed at harmonizing standards in Intelligent Transportation Systems, with the European Union, Japan and Canada.

“We’ve made huge strides in becoming more global in our reach,” Bertini said. “We believe our safety research will lead to dramatic improvements in transportation safety in the future.”

DOT has embarked on a two-year pilot program on safety that involves the real-world deployment of thousands of vehicles communicating with each other and the infrastructure. RITA has launched 13 research clusters to try to encourage interaction among the researchers across the modes of transportation.

Funding debates in Washington won’t distract the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from its focus on safety, said Deputy Administrator Bill Bronrott. “Dying on the highways is not a partisan issue,” he said, citing his agency’s record 17 rulemakings last year; several more are in the works, including efforts on hands-free devices and electronic on-board recorders.

In response to a question about a federal livability initiative, Rae said DOT is working on a guidebook that will help state and local officials who have received or want to apply for grants.

Finally, the administration is concentrating on workforce development. “We need to take the responsibility to look ahead 10 years,” Bertini said. “We need to nurture the next generation of TRB committee chairs, of TRB leaders.”




Panelists include, from left: Therese McMillan, Polly Trottenberg, Karen Rae, Bill Bronrott, and Robert Bertini. 

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