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General Sessions Address Latest Rail Trends, Updates

The 2014 APTA Rail Conference, June 15-18 in Montréal, featured four General Sessions focused on different aspects of the passenger rail industry: the importance of federal investment in public transportation, safety trends and advances, DOT policy and practices, and the unique perspective of public transit general ­managers.

APTA Leaders: Grow Federal Program
“The more our ­message is out there, the greater our success will be. We all need to be fully engaged, then to engage others.”

APTA Chair Peter Varga, chief executive officer of The Rapid, Grand Rapids, MI, noted the “positive shift in perception” that has followed the introduction of APTA’s advocacy campaign, “Where Public Transit Grows, Community Grows,” at the June 16 Opening General Session of the APTA Rail Conference in Montréal.

Varga—after giving his opening comments in French—stressed the importance of Congress passing a “big and bold” surface transportation authorization bill. APTA is calling for a six-year bill that includes $100 billion for public transit, as well as $50 billion for high-speed and intercity rail.

APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy also emphasized the need for enhanced federal support for public transit, saying: “We have not seen growth of the federal surface transportation program since 2009, and we need it now!”

Melaniphy continued: “What will it take to mobilize political leaders to think broadly about public transit and all the economic and social benefits it provides . . . and to stand up and say, ‘We need a long-term, universal, committed investment in public mobility?’ They need to be willing to make the tough decision to pay for it . . . . We live in a time of shrinking budgets, rising demands, and expanding transportation choices. Our customers have more options than ever.”

He said he sees public transportation “on the cusp of creating a long-term period of opportunity for public transportation. We have the stories, the numbers, and the political footprint to make it happen, and it’s because you, our members, have credibility. Credibility is built on a record of excellence.”

Melaniphy also addressed the ridership growth in rail transit modes during the first quarter of 2014. Light rail systems showed a 3.2 percent increase compared with the same quarter in 2013, heavy rail ridership grew by 1.8 percent, and commuter rail by 1.1 percent.

Michael W. Roschlau, president and chief executive officer, Canadian Urban Transit Association, told the session that he has never seen as much rail ­transit in operation as now: “It’s a veritable rail boom.” He also spoke about the growing number of young people who seek alternatives to driving and mentioned the concept of integrated urban mobility, which incorporates bicycling, walking, and vehicle sharing into the travel options of a community.

Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, president and chief executive officer, VIA Rail Canada, called for an investment in ­dedicated passenger rail; his system’s trains share 98 percent of their tracks with freight railroads. “Rail is popular, but it’s also congested,” he said.

Other speakers included Robert Poëti, Quebec minister of transport; Nicolas Girard, president and chief executive officer, Agence métropolitaine de transport; Philippe Schnobb, chairman, Société de transport de Montréal (the host agencies); and Aref Salem, Executive Committee member in charge of transportation for Montréal, who thanked APTA for “coming in such great numbers to discuss issues crucial to our city.”

AECOM sponsored the session.

Opening General Session speakers include, from left, APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy; Angela Iannuzziello, vice president, Canada National Transit Market Sector Lead, AECOM, session sponsor; Michael Roschlau, president and chief executive officer, Canadian Urban Transit Association; Nicolas Girard, president and chief executive officer, Agence métropolitaine de transport; Robert Poëti, Quebec minister of transport; Aref Salem, Executive Committee member in charge of transportation for Montréal; APTA Chair Peter Varga, chief executive officer of The Rapid, Grand Rapids, MI; Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, president and chief executive officer, VIA Rail Canada; and Carl Desrosiers, chief executive officer, Société de transport de Montréal.

Szabo, McMillan: A ‘Critical Moment’
The looming shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Account, the approaching expiration of MAP-21, and uncertainty regarding authorization of a new surface transportation bill all add up to “a critical moment for American transportation,” said FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo, co-presenter at the DOT General Session with FTA Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan.

“In the coming months, the fund that pays for highway and transit projects will become insolvent. Inaction by Congress—in DOT’s estimation—could put 700,000 jobs at stake and increase our infrastructure deficit even more,” Szabo said. “Our nation can’t afford to go down this path.”

The program, moderated by APTA Vice Chair ­Phillip ­Washington, general manager, Denver Regional Transportation District, was the most recent event in APTA’s initiative to facilitate question and answer sessions between its members and DOT officials.

McMillan said, “It’s not just about the future of our transportation systems. This really is about sustaining the growth and the quality of life in our communities.”

Both officials pointed to the Obama administration’s $302 billion proposal—the GROW AMERICA Act—as a solution. McMillan called the proposal “a bold plan” that would provide $72 billion for public transit, “a 70 percent increase over current spending . . . a ‘go big or go home’ philosophy” that would enable FTA to expand core formula grant programs and invest in state of good repair.

“For the first time ever, GROW AMERICA will provide predictable, dedicated funding for rail safety programs and to invest in a high-performance rail system, including $19 billion over the next four years,” Szabo said.

He added that the proposed Current Passenger Rail Service Program would fully fund Amtrak and the Rail Service Improvement Program would provide $9.5 billion to “address significant rail service development and improvements and strengthen regional connections,” including $2.3 billion to support commuter rail systems that are installing PTC, among other features. (Both of these programs are the formal names proposed by the Obama administration in the GROW AMERICA Act.)

But regardless of GROW AMERICA’s outcome, McMillan said that any bill “worthy of the transit industry’s support must address three priorities.” It should help close the infrastructure deficit, help the industry keep ahead of growing demand and an expanding population, and support jobs and economic development.

She added that absent congressional action on a new bill, “the FTA will have to begin cash management procedures, delaying and potentially reducing the reimbursements you’re counting on unless a solution can be found.” (In related news, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx told state DOT officials in a letter updated on June 19 that, “While we will take every step possible to continue to fully reimburse your State for as long as possible, these measures will effectively require us to delay reimbursements that are owed to your agency and the transit agencies in your State.” See APTA's Legislative Alert here.)

In addition, both officials said that federal underinvestment undermines the resiliency of public transit systems. “The $86 billion backlog in transit maintenance means that many of you are making do with vehicles, stations, and equipment that are in need of repair or replacement,” McMillan said, adding that most of that backlog is in rail infrastructure, which is capital-intensive.

Szabo and McMillan fielded several questions on topics ranging from Buy America to operator fatigue, transit-­oriented communities, innovative financing partnerships, and the importance of staying unified on messages to Congress by “ignoring the noise and doing good work.”

Hersman: Journey to Safety Excellence
National Safety Council President and CEO Deborah Hersman gave the keynote address at the Rail Safety and Security Excellence Awards General Session and Luncheon, calling the event a combination of two of her favorite things—“trains and safety.”

Hersman referred to the 100th anniversary of APTA’s safety and security awards, saying that since the creation of the program, APTA and its member agencies have helped establish a “legacy of safety for millions of people who go to work every day and travel to our most populous cities, and who trust the transportation systems they get on . . . . What you offer provides the safest way for most people to travel,” she said.

“At the end of the day, the problems we faced 100 years ago are the same as the problems we face today,” she continued. “It’s about looking at the humans, the machines, and the environment and making sure that we do a good job at addressing the risks with all of them.”

She also recounted the dramatic decline in rail-related accidents, ­noting that grade-crossing causalities have declined from 2,000 at the turn of the 20th century to about 200 today. “This is a tremendous achievement, but every single one is preventable. More can be done,” she said.

Hersman discussed the National Safety Council’s efforts to help organizations of all types voluntarily improve their safety initiatives. “We call it a ‘journey to safety excellence,’ and it’s about identifying best practices, understanding your own safety culture, and identifying opportunities for improvement,” she said.

As for infrequent, isolated incidents, she called them “wake-up calls” that can prompt public transit officials to ask themselves just how safe their property is. “Accident or injury rate is not the best predictor of safety,” she said, suggesting that accidents can be “watershed events” that redefine organizations. “It’s moments like that in any organization’s history that are transformational.”

Hersman acknowledged the winners of the 2014 safety and security awards (see related story), noting that “the journey to safety excellence represents a waypoint that is constantly going to outdistance us. It’s measured every day through your safety culture, your leadership, and your behavior.”

She added that “Every day is hard work and every day makes a difference for the people who ride on your systems. You do remarkable work on behalf of employees and passengers all across North America.”

Hersman closed by paraphrasing Michelangelo: “The great danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that we aim too low and achieve it.”

This session was sponsored by ­TranSystems Corporation.

Agency CEOs: Public Transportation Investment Builds Communities
“I marvel at how important public transportation is for growing cities,” said moderator Gary McNeil, member, APTA Executive Committee, and president, McNeil Management Services, at the June 18 Closing General Session.

“Investment in public transit is necessary to building and shaping cities,” McNeil continued. “Studies have shown that metropolitan areas receive a three- to six-fold return on their transportation investments.”

For example, ­Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail has been responsible for $7.4 billion in regional economic impact from 2003-2013, said Gary C. Thomas, DART president/executive director, a past APTA chair, and a member of the APTA Board of Directors.

“Transit can be a powerful economic tool,” Thomas said, “and this is a story that travels. We need to make sure people understand that public transit is about so much more than ridership; it can change communities the way we’ve transformed North Texas.”

Leanne P. ­Redden, acting executive director of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority and an APTA board member, shared the perspective of a legacy system. “Transit can be the core of a community,” she said. “It’s important to talk about the importance of investment: The new Orland Park Station in the suburbs began with $50,000 in planning money and yielded $60 million in development.”

Rob Padgette, chief operating officer, Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission, spoke about the importance of the 457-mile corridor between Boston and Washington, DC, which represents 2 percent of the U.S. land area but is responsible for 20 ­percent of the nation’s Gross ­Domestic Product (GDP). Commission members come from eight states, the District of Columbia, DOT, and Amtrak.

“The Northeast Corridor is responsible for a $50 billion annual contribution to GDP by commuters and business travelers,” he said. “We see two scenarios for maintaining the ­corridor: insufficient investment, ­leading to higher costs and greater losses, or transformational investment that will lead to increased ridership and substantial cost savings.”


Speakers at the Closing General Session, "Rail: The 20th Century's Economic Powerhouse," with Varga, left, and Melaniphy, right. Panelists are moderator Gary McNeil, Gary C. Thomas, Leanne P. Redden, and Rob Padgette.

Passenger Transport editors Susan Berlin and Deborah Bongiorno did the reporting for all four General Session stories.
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