The nation’s leading public transportation policymakers, experts, and analysts shared their perspectives of what’s ahead for the public transportation industry during APTA’s 39th annual Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, March 9-11, as Congress takes up the next surface authorization bill before MAP-21 expires on Sept. 30.
The conference featured four General Sessions over the conference’s three-day program: Opening General Session: DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, APTA Chair Peter Varga, APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy; Get Started with Members of Congress: Reps. Bill Shuster (R-PA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR); Update from DOT: FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo and FTA Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan; and Welcome to Washington: Charlie Cook, veteran Washington, D.C., political reporter.
Brief reports of their remarks follow.
Foxx: Tell Congress What Needs To Be Done
“Your group is critical to our chances of getting something done on Capitol Hill,” DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx told participants at a keynote address during the conference’s Opening General Session.
“In your conversations with members of Congress,” he said, “talk to them not only about what you’re doing, but what you want to be doing and what you would be doing if you had more predictability and sustainability in the system.”
This level of predictability is not possible when Congress funds transportation projects through short-term bills and continuing resolutions, Foxx explained: “Transit systems don’t know whether to go forward with that projects because they’re not sure what’s going to happen down the road . . . We need to start speaking up about the invisible problem, which is that the pipeline of projects is slowing because of the instability and the unpredictability in Washington. That is part of how we’re going to change the story.”
The secretary stressed the importance of supporting the four-year, $302 billion transportation authorization proposal included in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget. Nationwide projections show the U.S. population growing by 100 million by 2050, he said, adding: “As a country, we’ve got to figure out a way to move people as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
To support his comments, Foxx referred to his experiences in Charlotte, NC, where he was mayor before coming to Washington to head DOT. Charlotte was “a community very dependent on automobile traffic” when he grew up there, he said, but as available land for expansion became scarcer and traffic became more congested, “transit was a game-changer. It provided predictable travel times and gave residents a sense that a 30-minute trip today will be a 30-minute trip 20 years from now and 30 years from now.”
APTA Chair Peter Varga spoke about APTA’s two major initiatives: the push to pass an authorization bill and the advocacy and education campaign based on the theme “Where Public Transportation Goes, Community Grows.”
He called on conference participants to contact legislators and “speak in one voice, with one message, to get one outcome . . . This investment is about much more than money. It’s about affirming public transportation’s rightful role as a catalyst for economic and social development.”
Varga noted that APTA is calling for federal public transportation authorization levels to reach $100.4 billion by FY 2020, with annual levels rising from the current $10.7 billion to $22.2 billion by FY 2020. “That’s the kind of sound, visionary investment we need to fund a 21st-century public transportation system that will help build a 21st-century America,” he added.
The purpose of the advocacy and education campaign is to mobilize supporters of public transportation and showcase the role of transit in driving community growth. “Public transportation builds communities, revitalizes neighborhoods, and strengthens our prosperity,” Varga said.
He described several components of the campaign: a toolkit that individual APTA member organizations can use for their own markets, such as customer advertising templates, and support for grassroots advocacy and coalition building efforts.
Also during the opening session, APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy announced that U.S. public transportation ridership had reached a 57-year high in 2013: 10.7 billion trips, the most since 1956. (See related story.) He pointed out that public transit ridership has increased 37.2 percent since 1995, compared with 20.3 percent growth in population and 22.7 percent growth in vehicle miles traveled during the same period.
He added to the call for a long-term transportation authorization bill that includes funding for the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund and establishes a dedicated trust fund mechanism for the long term.
Melaniphy stressed that passing such legislation may be difficult. “Congress has to be courageous if a strong bill is going to come to fruition,” he said. “That’s where we come in. Courage comes from knowledge—so it is incumbent upon us to provide legislators with that knowledge . . . . If we don’t teach them, who will?”
Public transportation industry leaders must make sure their legislators understand the economic and environmental benefits of their organizations, he said. “When you go home, wherever home is, bring the same messages to your local officials. Show them—don’t just tell them—why public transit matters in their district.”
RouteMatch Software sponsored the session.
Three Members of Congress, Three Views on Funding
Three members of the House of Representatives took center stage at the Closing General Session to share their legislative priorities for authorization of the surface transportation bill.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, said he hopes to bring a spirit of bipartisanship to upcoming authorization discussions in a way that mirrors the committee’s recent success with the Water Resources Reform & Development Act, which passed the House by a vote of 417-3.
“What I learned on the water bill is to bring all stakeholders together early to educate members of Congress,” Shuster said. Along those lines, Shuster is conducting “listening sessions” and forming special panels, which have included APTA leaders; working with T&I’s subcommittees; and reaching out to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
“My goal is to get the bill done on time, before it expires and before the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) runs out of money,” Shuster said.
As for funding, Shuster is opposed to raising the gas tax, which funds the HTF and its Mass Transit Account. “In this environment, we’re not going to raise the gas tax. We need to find revenue sources without raising taxes,” he said. One option he mentioned is public-private partnerships, the focus of T&I’s newly formed Panel on Public-Private Partnerships, which recently heard from APTA Vice Chair Phillip Washington, general manager, Denver Regional Transportation District, and James Bass, interim executive director, Texas DOT.
Shuster also discussed his commitment to improving passenger rail in the Northeast Corridor. “I should be the poster boy for passenger rail. I travel from DC to my district near Harrisburg by passenger rail,” he said.
Shuster closed his remarks by encouraging conference attendees to engage their members of Congress back home. “When the American people decide something’s going to happen, it happens. People back home have a big impact on Congress.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) also encouraged attendees to reach out to their elected leaders, but with the goal of supporting H.R. 3636, his bill that would raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon phased in over three years and indexed to inflation, and H.R. 3638, which would replace the tax by 2024 with a “more sustainable, equitable, and efficient” funding source. Blumenauer is a member of the Budget and Ways and Means committees and a former member of T&I.
Absent a solution, Blumenauer said public transit systems are going to experience funding shortfalls in a few months. “You’re going to start feeling the pinch this summer when the federal government starts shutting down the spigot [as the HTF becomes insolvent],” he said.
He acknowledged the political difficulty of raising the tax. “It’s a tough sell to get resources in a difficult climate. You already know that. Most of your [state and local] measures have passed in difficult environments,” Blumenauer said, adding that he “walks the plank” on this issue with his own constituents. “The calls to my office are about 19 to 1 against it. People think the gas tax increases every year. It’s time to have an adult conversation about the reality of the gas tax.”
He noted that on the Hill, proposals to raise the tax are “dead on arrival” but diverse organizations have expressed support for the idea, including APTA, AFL-CIO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, environmentalists, and contractors, among others.
Blumenauer asked attendees to advocate for the increase. “Raise the profile in your community. Put the issue on the agenda. Hold meetings. Invite construction, environmentalists, bicyclists. . . . You can help. Educate Congress. At least ask each member of House and Senate—what’s their answer? If not this, then what?”
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), the ranking member of T&I’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, told attendees that her primary authorization goal is to “elevate public transportation in the bill—where it belongs” and to find long-term funding solutions for the future.
“The genius of the trust fund was it allowed [transit systems] to plan long-term. No one builds long-term projects on annual appropriations,” she said.
Norton added that she intends to include a measure in the authorization bill to reinstate the commuter tax benefit for public transit, currently at $130, so it is equal to the benefit for parking, which is $245.
Szabo, McMillan: Transportation Investment Creates Opportunity
Leaders of FRA and FTA spoke at APTA’s Legislative Conference about the increased stresses that U.S. public transportation systems will face in coming years. The nation’s population is projected to grow by about one-third between now and 2060, the number of people aging in place and needing public transportation is expected to rise, and many cities have reached capacity on their rail transit lines. However, public transit systems continue to face shortfalls in funding for expansion or maintenance of their infrastructure—the current infrastructure deficit is $86 billion.
FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo, a fifth-generation railroader, concentrated on the $19 billion for rail in the authorization proposal—including the creation of a dedicated rail account within the Highway Trust Fund, which he called “a game changer.”
“Investing in high-performing rail is an integral part of DOT’s efforts to build a safer and more reliable multimodal system,” he said.
Szabo listed his priorities: continued strong oversight, advancement of more proactive rail safety programs, and predictable federal funding to improve rail infrastructure and create new safety programs. For example, he said the system safety program, currently voluntary, must become mandatory.
He also described the Next Generation Equipment Committee’s efforts to create standardized vehicles for intercity rail, “creating economies and new opportunities throughout the supply chain.” Szabo compared this effort with the design of the PCC Streetcar in the 1930s, which set national standards for streetcars throughout the country; many of these vehicles remain in operation.
“By providing predictable and reliable federal funding streams, advancing proactive safety initiatives and standardized vehicles, we can make safer and more reliable rail network a reality,” he concluded.
FTA Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan said investing in public transportation serves as a “ladder of opportunity that will help lift workers into the middle class”—when she addressed a General Session on March 10. Specifically, she mentioned the need for federal funding “to foster development of a stronger workforce.”
McMillan referenced President Obama’s “aggressive” Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal, which would raise FTA funding by more than 60 percent over the previous year. “We need these resources to pave the way for the president’s four-year, $302 billion [surface transportation authorization] package to help us tackle the problems we all face,” she explained. Of that $302 billion, $72 billion would go to public transit and she said, “will help fill the current hole in the Highway Trust Fund.”
The budget increase includes a boost to formula grant levels, along with an additional $5 billion to support strategic “Fix-it-First” investments that bring rail transit infrastructure into a state of good repair and provide for new buses and bus facilities, and $2.5 billion for the Capital Investment Grant Program, providing funding for New Starts/Small Starts and Core Capacity projects.
She concluded: “2014 has to be our year of action. President Obama said as much in his State of the Union address. We need Congress to act, and you as well. Meet with your lawmakers and make yourselves heard.”
FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo and FTA Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan smile in response to a question from the audience.
Cook: More of the Same Until 2016
If you liked the last three years of Washington politics, you’ll really like the next three, said veteran political journalist and insider Charlie Cook at the Welcome to Washington General Session.
“Things aren’t going to change much. After the 2016 presidential election, we may hit a reset button, but not much will change until then,” said Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report and analyst for the National Journal Group.
The reason? Cook proposed several assumptions that will preserve the status quo:
The House of Representatives will “almost certainly stay in Republican hands,” he said, adding that the GOP is likely to hold the House until 2020.
In the Senate, “It’s going to be a photo finish. Really, really close; maybe 50-50,” Cook said, with possible recounts and runoffs.
President Obama’s latest approval rating of 41 percent, as tracked by a recent Gallup poll, will not fluctuate greatly because he has a “bedrock level of support and a hard ceiling of disapproval” without much middle ground. “If you’re the president, that’s not a good place to be.”
The president’s relations with Congress are probably going to stay steady. For the next two years, Cook predicts that the White House will act without congressional approval as much as possible.
As for the 2016 presidential elections, Cook said Democrats will benefit if Republicans continue to have difficulty attracting young, women, and minority voters, and Republicans will benefit if Obamacare—the Affordable Care Act—remains problematic for Democrats.
“In all probability, Hillary Clinton will run. I think there’s a 70 percent chance she runs,” Cook said, noting that her age—69 in November 2016—and the need to make a nine-year commitment to the presidency (one year to run and eight years to govern if she wins) might prevent her from entering the race. “It will be hard for any Democrat to stop her if she decides to run,” he said. “If she doesn’t run, I have no earthly idea who will.”
Cook also handicapped some of the Republicans mentioned as presidential contenders. At this point in the election cycle, he suggested that Sen. Rand Paul (KY) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are front runners with Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) “a wild card.”
What do the elections mean for public transportation? “Getting Democrats to support public transportation is not like making water run uphill,” Cook said. However, to increase support among greater numbers of Republicans, he advised public transportation to communicate messages that position the industry as a catalyst for progress. “In politics, linguistics are everything.”
URS Corp. sponsored the session.
Passenger Transport Senior Managing Editor Deborah Bongiorno and Senior Editor Susan Berlin reported on and wrote this compilation.
See for Yourself
These General Session speakers had much more to say than Passenger Transport is able to highlight in these pages. Find videos of the entire remarks by DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx and Reps. Bill Shuster, Earl Blumenauer, and Eleanor Holmes Norton on APTA’s website.