Federally supported infrastructure projects will improve the quality of life for generations of Americans to come—and they “see all forms of rail as a linchpin for economic growth,” Peter M. Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, told the more than 1,200 attendees at the June 13 Opening General Session of the APTA Rail Conference in Boston.
“On behalf of President Obama and Secretary LaHood, thank you for what you do every day,” Rogoff said. He noted how APTA’s efforts to promote public transportation overlap with the president’s priorities: “By using transit, people can keep more money in their wallets rather than handing it over at gas stations.”
The administrator emphasized that, even in these tough economic times, Obama is asking Congress essentially to double the FTA funding level in his Fiscal Year 2012 budget—“to hire employees, lay track, build stations.” He pointed to two rail projects currently under construction that he called “transformative”: the Denver Regional Transportation District’s FasTracks plan, which includes several public transit projects but no new highways, and the Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX Mid-Jordan light rail line. “Both agencies dreamed big,” he said, “got the voters on board early, and created cost-effective plans on time and on budget. FTA wants to do that with New Starts projects across the country.”
Rogoff also said FTA has found sufficient federal funds to honor FY 2010 and 2011 public transit projects that previously were placed on hold, through review of unused funds or those that lost their local funding and were not going forward. “This will allow you to keep every existing project whole, even in an environment of reduced appropriations, but the cupboard is now bare,” he explained.
He also said FTA will issue a schedule of all FY 2011 competitive grant funding opportunities at one time, so grantees can develop a strategic plan on which grants to apply for.
Rogoff next turned to the subject of risk assessment: “When there are different processes and different levels of sophistication, we can peel at least six months off our approval process when it comes to risk approval. Going forward, we are trying to eliminate duplication. You don’t have to pay consultants twice for risk analysis.”
Other priorities cited by Rogoff included passage of a rail transit safety bill and a proposal that would allow the use of federal funds for targeted and temporary operating assistance.
“What we’re doing through the rail industry is elemental to the job effort: helping people hear ‘You’re hired,’” he said.
Joseph C. Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, followed Rogoff at the opening session. “After decades of disinvestment and benign neglect, we have a president, a vice president, and a DOT secretary who get it,” he said. “They understand that rail is vital for economic viability.”
Szabo reported on potential high-speed rail corridors throughout the U.S., including the Washington, DC-Atlanta route, which would be included in the president’s proposed $53 billion, six-year transportation authorization bill.
“We have a bold vision,” he continued. “We have a long way to go, but the pieces are coming together to make high-speed rail succeed in America. We have to continue making bold investments in this program, and we can do it. If we were afraid of hard work, America wouldn’t have freight rail, interstate highways, or transit agencies across the nation …. High-speed rail is going to change the way we live, travel, and do business. It will keep us safer, save us money, and help clear our skies of pollution.”
Szabo concluded: “How do we win the future? This is how—by working together with the transit leaders of our nation, we can build the high-speed rail system our nation needs and deserves.”
In his welcoming remarks, APTA President William Millar announced that ridership trends began to turn around in the fourth quarter of 2010. Ridership in the first quarter of 2011 is 1.6 percent higher than the same quarter a year earlier, the largest increase in two years. “This growth was led by rail ridership,” he said, noting quarterly increases of 4.1 percent for heavy rail, 2.3 percent for light rail, and 0.5 percent for commuter rail.
“Nationally, in the first quarter of 2011, 39 million more trips were taken on public transportation than in the first quarter of 2010. That’s three million more riders per week,” he added.
Millar noted that the House of Representatives has proposed a 30 percent cut in federal funding for public transit. “Do you want that? Could your system live with 30 percent less federal aid? What would that mean to your community?” he asked the audience, calling on conference participants to tell Congress that Americans want more public transit.
APTA Chair Michael J. Scanlon echoed Millar, calling federal investment in public transportation “as close to a magic wand as we can get.” He asked public transit professionals to emphasize people, not statistics, as they “sell their story” to members of Congress.
“We want everybody to be fully committed and persuasive. We’ve got the facts on our side,” Scanlon emphasized. “Mobility is the fifth freedom. Public transportation’s value is real, its presence is critical, and its reach is vast.”
Yoshio Ishida, vice chairman of East Japan Railway Company and chairman of the Union of International Railways, said his organization and APTA would work together more closely to promote high-speed rail. However, he said, “I believe that high-speed rail service will not be successful unless metropolitan transportation also works as a foundation. We must promote safer and better railroad services.”
Jeffrey B. Mullan, secretary and chief executive officer, massDOT, told the group: “We are at a crossroads. We have some important decisions to make that will define the next generation.”
Richard A. Davey, general manager and rail and transit administrator for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, host system for the conference, added: “The number one issue for commuters is—they want more service. This is a good problem to have.”
AECOM sponsored the session.