The afternoon General Session on March 12—“Update from the U.S. Department of Transportation”—was spirited, with Administrators Joseph C. Szabo of the Federal Railroad Administration and Peter M. Rogoff of the Federal Transit Administration providing their candid views on authorization and the future of public transportation.
The moderator was Diana C. Mendes, AICP, vice chair, APTA Legislative Committee, and senior vice president, director of strategic investments for transportation, AECOM.
Szabo began by cautioning the audience not to be distracted by “the noise in the media or on Capitol Hill.” Acknowledging that everyone in the room wants transportation to return to being a bipartisan issue, he said DOT’s perspective is to “stay focused on the things we can control and ensure that Americans have safe, dependable options that make an America that’s built to last. We want America to have the safest, most modern, most structurally sound transportation structure in the world.”
He talked about high-speed and intercity rail as “a promising solution for our challenges ahead: not a competitor, but a partner of an integrated transportation network.” Noting resistance to this effort, Szabo added: “It’s fascinating to look at the game-changing transportation projects in our nation’s history—and in every one—the story has been the same: a magnet for naysayers.”
What if, he asked, people had disagreed with Abraham Lincoln when he said the U.S. needed a transcontinental railroad? Next he cited the New York/New Jersey tunnel, described by various critics at the time as “a boondoggle, financial and technologically impossible to build.”
“Today,” he said, “these projects are giant reminders of America’s success, the transportation projects that make our life possible and keep our economy moving. Today, we remember the presidents and governors who championed these great works,” not the individuals who tried to prevent them.
Stressing that “it’s time for action,” Szabo continued: “We need a forward-thinking budget and a transportation bill that will supply confidence in long-term planning. The future of our economy is at stake, and America deserves options.”
Rogoff began his remarks by effectively echoing Szabo: “This is not a time for any member of the transit community to be relaxed, to be reflective. We need to be very clear we are, in fact, in a true battle for the future of public transportation in America.”
He called the House proposal, H.R. 7, a “deliberate scheme to take what monies we have available and to put public transportation on a starvation diet depending on the most controversial elements in the bill.” He also emphasized that, based on his years of experience, the only bill one should discuss was the bill in hand—not the promise of a future bill.
Rogoff provided specifics about the president’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget, which he called “an alternative vision, a viable, fully financed funding proposal.”
This budget includes significant growth in New Starts funding, strong growth for a State of Good Repair program in both bus and rail, and temporary and targeted operating assistance. He said the president “knows why public transit is out there—that it’s a critically important transportation choice as well as a lifeline for those who don’t have a choice.”
Because the broader goal of a multimodal transportation authorization bill is unchanged, Rogoff urged that people overcome their issues with proposed legislation: “When we’re faced with the kind of threats we’ve been faced with in the last few weeks, this is not the time for divisiveness.”
He also reminded the audience that everybody needs to hear from them: “We need to be reaching out to people—including elected leaders who really don’t know how we’re funded and don’t know how important the service is that we put out. We need to stop just speaking to our friends.”
During the Q&A session that followed, Rogoff stressed that “we have to better understand how we capture the technology that young people communicate with—because it has to become their battle, because it’s their future.” The youth, he explained, have not needed to make their case for 30 years. “All they know is the bus comes. They don’t know who’s paying for it.”
Szabo noted that “it’s such a recharge for the batteries to get into the communities. It’s such a focus for you to see what it’s all about. When the public has this dialogue, they learn what transit means.”
Mendes closed the session by thanking the speakers who “reinforced to us some really important messages. Don’t wait, act now, don’t become distracted by the detractors, but take from them so we can be better communicators—so we can speak with one voice for a balanced transportation system for the future.”