Buses and bus people “came to the rescue” last year after Hurricane Sandy pounded public transportation agencies along the northeastern U.S. coast, according to speakers at the May 5 Opening General Session of APTA’s Bus & Paratransit Conference in Indianapolis.
The panel, “Hurricane Sandy: Managing the Disaster—Managing Resilience,” brought together FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff; Darryl Irick, president, MTA Bus Company, New York City; James Weinstein, executive director, New Jersey Transit Corporation; and Joseph Casey, general manager, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), Philadelphia.
Michael Terry, general manager of IndyGo, conference host system, served as the panel’s moderator after welcoming more than 700 attendees to Indianapolis.
The session also featured remarks by APTA Chair Flora Castillo, NJ Transit board member, and APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy as well as a presentation announcing the winners of the 2013 Bus Safety and Security Excellence Awards. (See related story.)
“Our subway system took the brunt of the damage,” Irick said. “But the backbone of the system is our bus people, and they came to the rescue.”
Irick said his agency kept much of its workforce on the job immediately following the storm, feeding and housing employees so “seven hours after we received the all clear, we were able to bring some bus service back.” He credited mechanics and operators for working nearly around-the-clock shifts.
Weinstein said NJ Transit’s bus system “carried the agency ‘on its back’ for nearly 30 days,” allowing the system to devote resources to getting its extensive and heavily used commuter rail system up and running.
“The Monday after the storm subsided, we relied entirely on our bus system,” he said. “Within 48 hours after the storm, 75 percent of the bus system was functioning in the northern part of the state. That enabled us to have some breathing room and start putting the rail system back together.”
The “prime directive” after securing the system and ensuring that riders and employees are safe, Weinstein said, “is to get the system back up and running. It’s part of our DNA.”
Casey said SEPTA did not sustain damages as severe as NJ Transit and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority: “Compared to New Jersey and New York City, we were extremely fortunate.”
In fact, Casey said, SEPTA was able to loan buses to NJ Transit to help with service recovery, as did other nearby public transit agencies. Even so, he noted, the agency had to deal with eight to 10 inches of rain and winds as high as 80 miles per hour.
Casey said some SEPTA crews were working on system repairs in the middle of the storm: “There’s a lot of pride in getting the system back running.”
Communication with customers about what services were available was a significant challenge for NJ Transit, Weinstein said. “When much of the state was without power—no Internet, no cell phones—all the technological solutions we put in place to communicate with customers—we couldn’t use them,” he explained.
Rogoff also cited the critical nature of constant communications among the agencies and with federal, state, and local transportation officials: “Everyone needed to know the state of the infrastructure.”
The administrator said the lessons FTA learned from Hurricane Katrina served it well in responding to Sandy, particularly the importance of ensuring that emergency funding is quickly accessible.
“We provided $10.9 billion to address the largest public transit disaster in the nation’s history,” Rogoff said. “It was important that we had a program in place that was best to deal with transit—to get dollars in the hands of agencies to fix infrastructure and replace assets and provide resiliency so, when the next disaster happens, we can respond even faster.” (The amount was later reduced by 5 percent because of sequestration budget cuts that took effect March 1.)
The next challenges are the tough conversations that must occur among the public transit agencies, Amtrak, and other stakeholders, Rogoff stressed.
It’s All About the People
Castillo also pointed out the vital role buses play in public transportation. “Buses are the backbone of our industry,” she said. “They take people to work, school, medical appointments, and friends and family, and demand-response vehicles offer riders mobility options that keep them independent. All of you keep these wheels moving.”
Public transportation is “All About the People,” she said, referring to her year-long focus as APTA chair. “The people of public transportation inspire me every day because they are the heart and soul of our industry. They remind us that public transportation isn’t only about buses and trains, routes and rails, or schedules and stations. All of those things are important, but it’s what’s inside that counts—the people we serve and the people we employ.
“It’s also about you,” she told the audience, “the people who work day in, day out to strengthen public transportation in communities across the country.”
Castillo said the future of public transportation has never been brighter. “I’m excited about our future because I’m energized about
our present, especially the important progress we’re making in workforce development,” she said, noting several initiatives:
* White House Women in Transportation Forum, attended by several senior-level women from APTA agency and business members;
* White House, DOT, and APTA discussions to expand public transit’s outreach to the Hispanic community;
* Early Career Program for young professionals, which will kick off at the APTA Rail Conference, June 2-5 in Philadelphia; and the
* Veterans and Military Family Resource Center and a career fair for veterans scheduled the day before the Rail Conference begins.
State of the Industry
Melaniphy’s remarks focused on the wide range of conference programs available, including Maintenance Monday (a new program on the latest bus technology), the International Bus Roadeo and Awards Banquet, Walk and Roll, the Bus Display and Products & Services Showcase, and a general session on teamwork by Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti in addition to the Hurricane Sandy panel.
“I’m sure you’ll agree we’ve got something for everyone,” he said after noting the numerous opportunities for attendees to learn, share, and network.
Melaniphy also presented an update on the state of the industry, noting that ridership is up nationwide. “Americans took 10.5 billion trips on public transportation in 2012—the second highest annual ridership since 1957,” he said.
He predicted that ridership will continue to grow because voters in many communities passed ballot initiatives to fund public transportation: “In 2012, 49 out of 62 public transit ballot initiatives were passed. That’s a nearly 80 percent passage rate.”
Melaniphy said APTA is looking forward to working with the DOT secretary nominee, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is an advocate of public transit. “He’ll have a big agenda ahead of him because MAP-21 expires soon,” he added.
He also encouraged attendees to meet with their members of Congress. “Tell them how your system is helping our environment and making our nation more energy-independent,” he added, citing a recent USA Today article reporting that 35 percent of buses use alternative fuels or hybrid technology.
Melaniphy closed his comments by noting his start in public transportation: “I’m a proud Hoosier who got my start here in Indiana. Many thanks to IndyGo General Manager Michael Terry and his team, and Allison Transmission, for letting me get behind the wheel. We appreciate all that you have done to make this conference a success.”
Opening General Session panelists sharing their post-Hurricane Sandy recovery stories, from left: James Weinstein, Darryl Irick, Joseph Casey, Peter M. Rogoff, and moderator Michael Terry.