November 21, 2014
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Public Transportation: Opportunities for Nation Building

BY PHILLIP A. WASHINGTON, General Manager & CEO, Denver RTD, and APTA Chair

When I accepted the APTA leadership torch from immediate Past Chair Peter Varga at the Annual Meeting in October, I thanked the 2,000 colleagues in attendance for naming me their “Chief Transportation Advocate.” That’s how I see my year as chair: It’s a call to action, when all of us in public transportation work together to strengthen our role as the transformational industry our nation needs. There’s no time like the present. We have great challenges, but we also have unprecedented opportunities.

Opportunity Number 1
I have seen plenty of nation building around the world in my previous career with the U.S. Army. It’s time for America to do some “nation building” here at home, starting with public transportation.

Now is the moment to make our case. Every one of you has a compelling story—bold growth, community development, job creation, and innovative problem solving, just to name a few. Individually and collectively through APTA, we have preached to anyone who would listen that we need a long-term funding bill to close the $86 billion infrastructure deficit.

But our words have not resulted in collective long-term action by our federally elected leaders. Nor has the reality of operating on too many crumbling bridges, roads, and 19th-century train tracks. Like you, I am not accustomed to this type of leadership paralysis, ­especially when 72 percent of Americans have supported local transportation ballot measures since 2000, including the recent election. That’s a landslide by any count. Congressional inaction is mind-boggling to me.

So let’s do more than “preach” and engage in individual federal official advocacy. Let’s see some collective congressional action with regard to a sufficiently funded long-term transportation funding bill.

Opportunity Number 2
I’m calling for a day of advocacy: a National Day of Transportation Infrastructure. I envision this as a day when every public transit agency in the nation and every business in the private sector can unite in common purpose with one message: It’s time to set aside partisanship and once again act in the best interest of our country to build, repair, and strengthen transportation infrastructure.

It’s time to do that nation building I mentioned.

It’s time to highlight our industry’s contributions in terms of improving lives, creating jobs, strengthening small businesses, and transforming communities.

It’s time to underscore our industry’s tremendous value to local, state, and national economies.

Such a day requires our collective action. And such a unified outcome needs many champions. It will take all of us, working with our partners—­chambers and business owners, riders and advocates, millennials and baby boomers, employers and workers, universities and students, veterans, and developers—who understand that strengthening our infrastructure is a matter of national economic survival and national security. APTA is currently developing a blueprint, so get ready.

Opportunity Number 3
Our next opportunity is APTA’s new five-year strategic plan. As chair of the Strategic Plan Steering Committee, I know it builds on a solid foundation.

The new plan sharpens our focus; ensures that we’re taking the right action at the right time; connects the plan to board, committee, and staff work; and addresses the five “mega-trends” that are driving so much change. These trends will define our operating environment for the next five years: increasing expectations for improved safety and security measures, evolving financial resources, shifting workforce demographics, changing customer lifestyles, and accelerating technologies.

During the process to develop the plan, several topics surfaced: asset management and state of good repair, the evolution of transit-oriented development to transit-oriented communities and the resulting gentrification in some neighborhoods, research, and inter­national collaboration. While we can’t tackle all these issues, we will address some in the plan. The final version will be ready in early 2015.

Opportunity Number 4
Funding is our biggest priority. We are on the edge of an infrastructure renaissance, but we must have a long-term bill as a catalyst. We all know this. So do our elected leaders, from city councils to statehouses and Capitol Hill to the White House.
At some point, funding will flow. Infrastructure apathy cannot last forever. Our best leaders know that our transportation infrastructure will fail on a massive scale if we don’t act. It’s like not changing the oil in car for 10 years and still expecting it to run.

When the spigot opens, will we be ready? Are we shovel and investment ready? I think most of us are. Are we also people ready? We have some work to do on this front.

We need to develop a qualified workforce up and down the corporate ladder to plan, build, operate, and maintain the bigger and better agencies federal funding will surely trigger.

But the importance of long-term funding isn’t only about the actual money. Rather, the long-range value of a long-term bill is that it minimizes risk to our investors and private-sector partners. Our partners are much more willing to invest in us when they can see that the nation has invested in us. It all comes back to nation building.

When I see and hear world leaders, many of who convened at the recent two-day G20 gathering in the Australian city of Brisbane, talk about funding and building more infrastructure in their respective countries, I wonder how far we are falling behind. I wonder whether our federally elected leaders understand that their lack of collective leadership and action in this crucial area is already leading to incredible uncertainty in the planning, building, and repairing of this country’s infrastructure.

This country has been on a 30-year infrastructure vacation. It’s way past time for the United States to return from this vacation and get back to work. In my year as APTA’s Chief Transportation Advocate, I promise to get to work for you.

This “Commentary” section features different points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes and views that affect public transportation.
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