“We can’t have a world-class society without world-class transportation,” Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari told the March 14 Opening General Session of the APTA Legislative Conference in his keynote address. He welcomed conference participants as partners of DOT, noting: “Your advocacy shapes the way we view transit as a nation.”
Porcari reported that the $127 billion for public transportation in the administration’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget request for DOT is more than double previous expenditure levels, which he called “an unprecedented increase for making public transit more affordable and accessible.”
He cited U.S. Census Bureau statistics estimating an increase in the nation’s population by 100 million by 2050—equivalent to the combined population of Texas, California, New York, and Florida. “If we don’t take action on transit, we’ll make sure tomorrow’s entrepreneurs are literally trapped in the slow lane,” he said.
The deputy secretary also listed other elements of the administration’s budget proposal, such as creation of a National Infrastructure Bank that would link federal funding with private-sector investment; a competitive grant program based on outcomes; strengthening Buy America as a way to guarantee that public transit investment and jobs remain in the U.S.; and a program that would allow cities with high unemployment to use formula funding as operating assistance on a targeted, temporary basis. As Porcari explained, “There’s no point buying buses if you’re laying off operators.”
He continued: “Transportation has always been the thread that binds people together, taking goods to market and helping communities thrive.” The nation’s current infrastructure began with investments made by the parents and grandparents of the current generation, Porcari said, but “are we doing right by the next generation? We’re committed to rebuilding the transportation network—rebuilding the foundation of America for future generations.”
During the session, APTA Chair Michael J. Scanlon, general manager/chief executive officer of the San Mateo County Transit District and Caltrain (Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board) in San Carlos, CA, commented on how the current year is, in the words of Charles Dickens, “the best of times and the worst of times.” He continued: “It’s a time of great difficulties or great opportunities—not in the issue of public transit funding, but in how we view it.”
Scanlon reminded conference participants that the focus of his year as chair is “inclusion,” which he defined at “getting everybody into our tent. Many of our stakeholders don’t have a clue yet that they are stakeholders. They have to see the economic and social impact and how it rolls down. Different organizations may seem disparate, but they are dependent on each other.”
He also called on APTA members meeting with their members of Congress to return to the time when “differences of opinion were celebrated. Let’s set the bar as high as we can for civil discourse. Even if you disagree, you don’t have to be disagreeable,” he said.
In his introductory remarks at the opening session, APTA President William Millar called the president’s FY 2012 budget “amazing for public transportation. It could be a game changer for tens of millions of Americans.”
He also provided an overview of the challenges facing U.S. public transportation agencies: although the unemployment rate is slowly falling, gasoline prices are rising at an unprecedented speed—a double-edged sword because at the same time drivers decide to try transit in response to rising fuel costs, the transit systems must also cope with increased costs along with service cuts and fare increases related to the recession.
“When people choose to use public transit, good things happen,” Millar said. He cited the APTA March Transit Savings Report, which shows that households that use public transit can save an average of $9,900 per year—more than most households spend on food.
At the conference, APTA released a report titled Potential Impact of Gasoline Prices on U.S. Public Transportation Ridership. According to the report, a gasoline price increase to $4 per gallon could result in 670 million more public transit trips in a year, or two million more each day. At $5, the projected annual ridership grows to 11.6 billion, and at $6, to 27 billion, a level not seen in the U.S. in 60 years.
Millar also noted that 46 percent of American households currently have no access to public transportation. “We think that if those Americans are to have a choice and take some of their trips by public transit, we need to expand the amount of transit in America,” he said. “We must talk about expanding travel options for Americans and providing the right kind of public transit service for the size of their communities.”
DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari, center, offered the keynote address at the Opening General Session, "What's Ahead for Transit--New Opportunities in 2011." APTA President William Millar, left, and APTA Chair Michael J. Scanlon also participated in the program.