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Leaders Explore Latest Advances in Bus Industry

The nation’s leading public transportation policymakers, experts, and analysts shared their insights into what’s ahead for bus and paratransit operations during APTA’s annual Bus & Paratransit Conference in Kansas City, MO, May 4-7. Brief reports of their General Session remarks follow.

Varga, Melaniphy: Authorization Is Job #1
The need for a long-term surface transportation authorization bill and the critical role buses play in our nation were two of the messages heard loud and clear at the Bus & Para­transit Conference Opening General Session on May 4.

“We all know the important role buses play in creating healthy, vibrant communities, and this authorization plan recognizes and supports this,” said APTA Chair Peter Varga. He reported to the more than 750 attendees that real progress is being made in organizing, energizing, and authorizing support for public transit—the three goals he set as chair.

APTA’s authorization proposal—the result of “months of hard work, long hours, and some spirited exchanges,” Varga said—balances the needs of communities and modes of all sizes. Among the recommendations is the restoration of the Bus and Bus Facilities Program in the bill’s first two years. “It’s critical to remain unified behind the plan and speak with one voice,” Varga added.

Pointing out his long history with bus systems, Varga assured the audience that APTA’s reauthorization plan meets the needs of the people who run and operate buses around the country.

Noting the increasing popularity and growing demand for public transit, he said, “There has been a positive shift in the perception of our industry. People are recognizing that public transportation powers community growth.”

To achieve our industry’s funding goals, APTA has created a national advocacy campaign that encourages people to think about the broad, long-term benefits of public transportation, he said, a goal summarized by the campaign’s theme, “Where Public Transportation Goes, Community Grows.”

Calling upon systems and businesses to join the campaign, Varga said, “We as transit professionals need to be fully engaged—we need to engage our communities, our stakeholders, our riders, and our employees.” See page 10 for a related story.

Also at the opening session, APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy presented an update on the state of the industry, noting that ridership is up nationwide. “Last year, 10.7 billion trips were taken on public transportation,” he said. “That’s 115 million more than the previous year—and the highest number since 1956, when Eisenhower was president and Elvis was on the charts!”

To further highlight the importance of buses in the nation’s ­public transportation network, ­Melaniphy pointed out that bus trips make up the majority of rides taken on ­public transportation. “Buses are part of the social contract,” he said. “That contract guarantees freedom and equality for all citizens—and you help make that happen with the work you do.”

He referenced the essential role buses have played in American society for decades as vehicles of necessity and choice for political, economic, and cultural change.

Today, technological advances are helping to strengthen the relevancy of this legacy far into the future, ­Melaniphy said, noting that the industry is replete with “stories about how 21st-century technologies are making bus travel even safer and more efficient. For example, in many communities, satellite-based communications systems track bus location, measure real-time performance, and communicate with drivers and passengers.”

Mark Huffer, general manager, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA), the conference host system, pointed to the many ways in which public transit has contributed to the city’s urban renewal. Adding emphasis to the messages about technology and public transit’s role in growing communities, Huffer showed slides of KCATA’s new CNG buses and the city’s revitalized downtown core.

Varga and Melaniphy presented the Bus Safety and Security Awards (see related story) and congrat­ulated three of the “Best of the Best” bus drivers—those who have amassed safety records of 40 years or more. The operators were welcomed with standing ovations from the audience.

DOT: ‘If You Like It, Let Them Hear It’
FTA Chief Counsel Dorval Carter encouraged conference attendees to review GROW AMERICA, the Obama administration’s recent proposal for a long-term, ­multimodal surface transportation bill, and then “raise your voice and tell Congress what you want. If you like it, let them hear it,” Carter said, using a phrase that became a frequent refrain during his General Session remarks on May 5.

Joining Carter, a 30-year veteran of the public transit industry and former counsel for the Chicago Transit Authority, was Henrika Buchanan-Smith, FTA associate administrator for program management, who oversees more than $10 billion in funding for fixed guideway capital investments, bus and bus facilities, state of good repair, and transit asset management, among other areas. APTA Vice Chair Phillip Washington, general manager of Denver’s Regional Transportation District, moderated the session.

The program, the latest in APTA’s initiative to facilitate question-and-answer sessions between its members and senior-level DOT officials, focused on GROW AMERICA, the dwindling Highway Trust Fund, and the importance of leveraging grassroots influence on members of Congress.

Carter said the country is “building on a foundation that is already cracked, and the fissures are widening every day.” GROW AMERICA, he said, will provide funds for new investments—including bus and bus facility programs—as well as state-of-good-repair projects.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he said, “and we look forward to hearing from you—all of you—and your voices should include your riders.”

He added that DOT is also “looking at ways to get you the help you need today” so public transit agencies can continue operations uninterrupted. “We’ll announce a program—separate from authorization—so keep your eyes open,” he advised the crowd.

Carter and Buchanan-Smith said senior DOT officials are currently in discussions focused on helping transit agencies manage their financial affairs while Congress debates legislation. “The question is, what are the demands on the fund and how are we going to deal with them . . . how are we going to manage the flow of money going out with the flow of money coming in,” Carter said. “We’re having conversations about what various scenarios might be. The good news is that the Highway Trust Fund will hit [bottom] sooner than the Mass Transit Account [MTA]. We hope to get to a resolution before the MTA gets to that point, and we’ll get information to you well in advance.”

He added, “Use your voices to be the forceful, persuasive advocates we know you to be. If you like it, let them hear it!”

Marohn: More Productive Growth
“We don’t need more growth. We need more productive growth.”

That was the thread sewn throughout a lively presentation at a May 5 General Session by Charles Marohn Jr., co-founder of the Strong Towns movement and author of the “Strong Towns Blog.”

Strong Towns supports a model for growth that allows U.S. communities to become financially strong and resilient; public transportation is an important piece to fulfilling this mission.

According to Marohn, current patterns of new growth in America provide the illusion of prosperity: In the near term, revenue grows while the corresponding maintenance obligations—not counted on the public balance sheet—are a generation away. The inefficiencies of the current approach have left many U.S. towns financially insolvent, unable to fund even the maintenance costs of their basic infrastructure. He said a new approach that accounts for the full cost of growth is needed to make these towns strong again.

“We can no longer simply disregard old investments in favor of new,” he said, “but instead we need to focus on making better use of that which we are already committed to publicly maintain.”

The most productive way to operate a public transit system, he said, is to move at high speed between two very productive places. He called transit a means to an end, suggesting that ­public transit agencies pay for improved ­transportation systems by building wealth and value at the stops and great destinations at the end.

He also noted that productive places scaled to people and served by public transportation cost less to build and have greater financial returns than those built strictly for automobiles. “Thousands of years ago, the only mode of transportation was walking,” Marohn said. “Now we build entire cities around cars. Public transportation cannot be an afterthought.”

Belcher: Innovation Is Key
A growing and aging population, a deteriorating infrastructure, and shrinking budgets are just some of the challenges facing the transportation industry as it seeks to be more globally competitive. These were just some of the insights Scott Belcher, president & CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), shared with attendees at APTA’s Closing General Session on May 6.

The solution, according to Belcher, is that public transit professionals need to find smarter ways to address these challenges, and embracing innovative technologies is key. It’s also imperative to find ways to invest in systems now, he said, because transportation is changing in ways people could not have envisioned even five years ago. That’s both exciting and frightening, he said, and “it’s going to change the way we think.”

The world is becoming increasingly connected, he explained, and that connectivity is changing how we think about transportation.

Thinking and acting innovatively are the only ways the industry will be able to manage existing systems, optimize capacity, reduce costs, and meet future demands, according to Belcher. Admitting it’s always difficult to take risks, he said it’s critical to create an atmosphere where public transit is not so risk-averse. He offered a suggestion to manage that risk: Help communities partner with the private sector, start on a small scale, and then grow from there.

Progressive states and localities are investing in technology now, Belcher said, citing complete streets, BRT, smart parking, integrated payment systems, and shared use mobility as examples. “They’re making difficult decisions,” he said.

Better management of data and technology are key as we look to the future. Belcher pointed to Domino’s Pizza as one of the most innovative and aggressive fleet operations in the country. The company, he said, is using telematics to optimize loads, assess driver performance, and optimize fuel.

APTA President & CEO Michael ­Melaniphy, who serves on the board of ITS America, presided at the session.

APTA Director of Publications Kathy Golden, communications staff Jordan Smith and Deborah Bongiorno, and KCATA Communications Director Cindy Baker ­contributed to this story.
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