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Leg Conference Focuses on Advocacy, Funding, Policies
Some of the nation's public transportation leaders shared their views of what's ahead for the industry during APTA's 40th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., March 8-10, as Congress considers the next surface transportation authorization bill before MAP-21 expires on May 31. The conference featured five General Sessions over the conference's three-day program:
*Opening General Session: APTA Chair Phillip Washington, APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy, Janet Kavinoky, executive director, transportation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and vice president of its Americans for Transportation Mobility Coalition, and Peter Ruane, president and chief executive officer, American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA);
*Update from DOT: FTA Acting Administrator Therese McMillan and FRA Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg;
*Get Started with Members of Congress: Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Dean Heller (R-NV) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC);
*Mayors' Transit Roundtable: Mayors John Giles, Mesa, AZ; Betsy Price, Fort Worth, TX; and William Applegarth, Riverton, UT; and
*Welcome to Washington: Candy Crowley, veteran political reporter, and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser. Brief reports of their remarks follow.
APTA, Partners Stand Up for Transportation
APTA Chair Phillip Washington and President & CEO Michael Melaniphy were joined by Janet Kavinoky, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Peter Ruane, ARTBA, at the conference's Opening General Session, which focused on the association's Stand Up for Transportation Day on April 9. This national grassroots event will call attention to the critical need for infrastructure investment, other efforts to support a long-term surface transportation authorization bill and public transit's record ridership.
In his opening remarks, Washington, general manager and chief executive officer of Denver's Regional Transportation District, emphasized that this is a "momentous time in our industry" as far as ensuring passage of a surface transportation authorization bill that provides needed funding for public transportation projects.
"I see my time as APTA chair as a year-long call to action--a call to secure the long-term, sustainable and reliable federal transportation bill we need--the bill the nation needs," he stated. "I believe we have an effective strategy for securing this bill. That strategy is our collective power. We must stand together on Stand Up for Transportation Day. (See related story.)
"We build communities, we produce jobs, we drive sales in businesses located along our corridors, we improve the quality of life for millions and we strengthen national security by creating economic growth," Washington said. "That's true nation building. That's impressive nation building. But we need to move from impressive talk to impressive action."
He called on public transportation agencies and businesses to conduct media and press events on that day in as many American cities, suburbs and rural communities as possible. APTA's toolkit for SU4T Day is available at the APTA website.
"It's time to set aside partisanship and once again act in the best interest of our country to repair, strengthen and build transportation infrastructure," he continued. "It's time to work together--Republicans and Democrats, Congress and the White House, states and cities--to close our nation's embarrassingly massive infrastructure deficit--now at $88 billion. Truth is, our nation has been on a 30-year infrastructure vacation. It's way past time for our leaders to get back to work."
Washington also spoke about the importance of workforce development, "creating career pathways for growing our own qualified workforce."
In his remarks, Melaniphy announced that public transportation ridership reached a new record level in 2014: 10.8 billion rides, the highest ridership in 58 years. He emphasized that this growth is broad-based, with smaller systems reporting a ridership growth rate double the national average.
"Riders are telling us they want more public transportation. Now you need to let Congress know that investment in public transit is critical to meeting this demand," he said. Public transit professionals must spread the word now, he added, before the 2016 presidential race overwhelms all other issues.
Melaniphy replied to policy makers who may be comfortable with the status quo that "good enough is just not good enough ... We're the subject matter experts here. If we don't call for more investments in our public transportation, who will?"
Kavinoky warned the audience that "transit is under attack in Washington," citing reports from conservative think tanks that suggest the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) would not be depleted if public transit was taken out of the equation.
"It's easy enough for people to say these things to each other, but it becomes harder with you in their offices," she stressed. "You have to explain to them how public transit fits into the economy and creates jobs, and show them the importance of the federal government in that process." Beyond that, she said, make legislators understand that they will face opposition if they don't take the needs of public transportation into account.
Kavinoky specifically called on conference attendees to educate new members of Congress and their staffs, who might know or understand little about the need for and importance of public transportation.
"Talk to people and don't let them off the hook," she said. "Don't let anyone try to divide you up by mode; remember you're all in this together--transit and transportation together support growth, community investment and jobs--and speak with a unified voice."
Ruane emphasized the positive in his remarks, saying he believes that Congress will pass long-term legislation this year.
"We have real-world support," he said, "but it's up to us to close the deal."
He encouraged attendees to highlight in their Capitol Hill visits that "if [members of Congress] don't do the right thing, there will be political consequences. ... This is no time for subtlety." He also called on Congress to "have political courage" and raise the fuel tax to help fund the HTF.
He joined Kavinoky in emphasizing the need for all modes of transportation to stand together in the push for a long-term, reliable federal funding source. "WeÊmust let them [senators and representatives] know that there is chronic federal underinvestment in all modes of transportation," he said. "We have to fight the bad information our opponents put out about us into the mainstream. We have to show what we're facing so they can't say they don't know the truth."
RouteMatch Software sponsored the session.
DOT Perspectives, Policies
"America's future growth and prosperity depend on decisions being made now," FTA Acting Administrator Therese McMillan said at the session focusing on DOT priorities.
She joined FRA Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg at the event and shared remarks from DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, who was recovering from surgery and unable to attend.
"Imagine you sent a postcard to yourself as you were 30 years ago," McMillan said, quoting Foxx's remarks. "What would you say? Now think about a postcard sent to you from 30 years in the future, telling you about gridlock on the roads, more people living in the U.S. and no way to connect them, bridges failing--and the message: Invest now!"
She emphasized, "We won't meet our future needs if we don't invest now in public transportation." Projections show the number of U.S. residents age 65 and over more than doubling in the next 50 years, she said, pointing out that many in this category consider access to public transit their highest priority.
"Public transit is necessary to the health and well-being of both residents and their communities," McMillan said. Many employees are unable to get to work if their transit connection is interrupted, such as with the series of snowstorms that struck Boston this winter, and transit can allow people to access preventive health care rather than forcing them to wait until they need to visit an emergency room.
McMillan presented some details of the GROW AMERICA Act, the six-year, $478 billion authorization bill proposed by President Obama in 2014. FTA would receive $18.4 billion in Fiscal Year 2016, part of a total $115 billion over the entire six years.
"People may ask, how can we afford to do this? The real question is, how can we not?" she asked. She called on conference participants to deliver the "unambiguous, unvarnished truth" to Congress.
Feinberg pointed to the House's recent passage of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act as an "important first step" in the authorization process. Echoing McMillan, she said, "GROW AMERICA is our blueprint for closing the gap and setting up rail for the next generation. It's up to you to make sure Congress gets it right."
Specifically, she noted, GROW AMERICA would establish a rail account in a new Transportation Trust Fund and would invest $29 billion over six years to improve safety and invest in a national high-performance rail system.
She spoke about the importance of seeking new perspectives on rail safety issues, noting that the total number of accidents nationwide has declined during the past decade. "The rail industry, in many ways, is safer than it has ever been in history." But recent incidents show that much work remains "and that is just one reason why safety is the centerpiece of the administration's rail reauthorization proposal. But in addition to our own legislative proposals, we have to take independent actions as well."
Feinberg concluded, "Rehabilitating our aging infrastructure simply cannot wait any longer."
Diana Mendes, senior vice president, AECOM, and chair, APTA Policy and Planning Steering Committee, moderated the session.
Members of Congress Call for Bipartisan Action
Members from both sides of the aisle and congressional chambers called for a return to bipartisan efforts to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill and encouraged APTA members to press Congress for such a bill.
The featured speakers at the Tuesday General Session, "Get Started with Members of Congress," were Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), ranking member, Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), member, Senate Finance and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees; and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), ranking member, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
Specifically, Brown noted that some pundits in various think tanks are pushing Congress to minimize the federal role in public transportation and remove it from the HTF.
"It's up to you to make sure transit remains part of the trust fund," Brown said. "Invite your community to tell its stories about jobs, the environment and other benefits. We can't let transit devolve to the states. Some members of Congress don't see the public interest in public transportation. It's up to you to speak out about that."
Brown said the chief "obvious obstacle" to a long-term bill is to identify a revenue source, and his priority is to get started. "We need to start work soon on the next bill. Bring ideas to my staff. I think there's room for agreement [on funding]," he said, adding that he is looking forward to working with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chair of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
Brown, a native of Ohio, noted that some members of Congress are not interested in urban issues. "The reality is that if Cleveland doesn't do well, the suburbs and the state don't do well. One way to do well is to strengthen public transportation systems."
Heller also spoke about the local impact of public transportation, describing the essential role transportation plays in Nevada's economy. "Thirty percent of employment in my state is tied to transportation infrastructure," he said. "It's central to our economy. Good transportation enables these jobs. It's the most important domestic policy in this country."
He added that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, asked him to explore several options for funding public transportation. "We need to come up with $100 billion to cover the next five or six years. What's the best way to do that?"
Heller said he's looking at the gas tax, vehicle miles traveled and repatriation (a proposal to return offshore corporate earnings to the U.S. and dedicate the subsequent taxes to transportation infrastructure), but he believes these long-range options are either too short-term or otherwise flawed.
Rather, he said, one long-term solution is comprehensive tax reform. "If we had comprehensive tax reform, there would be plenty of money. But there's a long way to go to develop a bill for that."
Heller called for bipartisanship. "Public transportation should be a bipartisan issue. Let's get it done," he said, noting the need to find compromise. "If you can get 80 percent, take it and then work for the other 20 percent."
Norton suggested that transportation might be the issue that breaks the current political gridlock in Congress. 'Something has to happen, and transportation might be that 'something'," she said.
"The fact is that public transportation has already transformed transportation in general in this country. It happened through public demand. People all over the country voted for rail, for streetcars, for buses," she added. "In most jurisdictions, the decline in gas prices has not led to a decrease in public transportation use. What better evidence for Congress?"
She added, "What you already know, what the American people know and what the Congress won't face is that we have a new kind of transportation culture in this country. Public transportation is part of that. We need new thinking, innovation, to catch up with the 21st century."
Norton continued, "The American people are not willing to pay for a lot of things. Public transportation is not one of them." She also described her efforts to restore parity in the tax benefit between commuter transit and parking.
Transit Tales of Three Cities
As policymakers in Washington, D.C., debate a new surface transportation bill, some of the nation's mayors are taking action to invest in public transportation, including the three featured at the Mayors' Transit Roundtable.
Mayors John Giles, Mesa, AZ; Betsy Price, Fort Worth, TX; and William Applegarth, Riverton, UT, cited public transportation as a jobs engine, a lever for economic development and an essential mobility service for their citizens.
"Light rail has been a tremendous boon to our city, especially for millennials," Giles said, citing the Valley Metro project that links Mesa with Phoenix. "It's very popular and very successful as an economic development system--property values have skyrocketed." He added that the light rail line not only takes people to downtown Mesa, itÕs increasingly used for commuting.
"The city is spread out. We have to think of other ways to connect to where people live. The commuter aspect of light rail is important, and as a way to generate excitement [about Mesa] light rail has been tremendously successful," he noted.
Giles also noted that public transit has been a "huge blessing" for economic development and increasing mobility options for citizens, especially older people, and for both residents and visitors who want to travel to destinations in Phoenix, such as the airport and the university. "Transit impacts the 'average Joe' in Mesa, not just seniors or millennials," he said.
Fort Worth's Price offered a similar assessment of public transit in her city. "Transit is a way to get people out of their car and back in the community," especially for families and aging baby boomers (whom she called the "silver tsunami")--even in car-centric Texas.
"Transit contributes to a vibrant, strong, engaged community," she said, by strengthening economic development, air quality and mobility options. "Many people live in Fort Worth and work in Dallas. They can hop on transit and get to work with no worries. Transit gives them time back in their busy lives."
In Riverton, UT, a suburb of Salt Lake City, Applegarth said his job is to "spend money to improve the quality of life of our citizens, but spend in the right way.... You only have one chance to build out a city right."
Among his initiatives are efforts to invest in transportation. "A major goal of our city is air quality. That's a critical reason for rail in our area," he noted. "And mobility is a critical issue. That's why I got involved."
He described his city as long and narrow, surrounded by mountains and Salt Lake and with limited roads in and out--features that require city leaders to integrate all modes of transportation, including bus and rail with the Utah Transit Authority. "We have a culture of unified transportation where roads and transit work together," he said. "It's important to keep the community involved and to ensure broad support for funding."
All three mayors pointed to partnerships as key initiatives.
"You have to have a regional focus, develop regional partnerships and rally neighbors," Giles said, adding that such a strategy can attract positive attention on Capitol Hill. "Tell success stories and discuss positive solutions. Transportation has to be a regional priority."
Fort Worth's public transit system, The T, is working to improve public transit, including the Fort Worth Intermodal Transportation Center, Spur bus service, TEX Rail service between Fort Worth and the DFW Airport, and Trinity Railway Express, a commuter rail service that is a cooperative venture with Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
Transit is a major tool in developing regional partnerships, Price said. "As a region, we're working together," she added. "It doesn't make sense to have a line that stops at the city limits. We need to integrate development and work together." As a result, she said, there's a cooperative relationship between the cities.
Applegarth added, "Riverton is a small city, so we need to work together in a unified way--the CEO of the transit agency, MPO, business community, Chamber of Commerce and mayors of cities statewide. We need to have a unified front. Each of us has a role. If we don't work together, we can't succeed in transit."
UTA President and CEO Michael Allegra moderated the session.
Mayors' Transit Roundtable, from left: Michael Allegra, UTA; Betsy Price, Fort Worth, TX; John Giles, Mesa, AZ; and William Applegarth, Riverton, UT.
Welcome to Washington
Former CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley offered a pundit's inside view of the Washington, D.C., political climate during her remarks at the Welcome General Session, noting that the ideological divisions in Congress present challenges to passing a long-term surface transportation bill. >There is no middle left, so nobody has any electoral mandate to compromise," Crowley said. "Your only hope is in targeting the interests of particular members," she said. "Start at home and broaden it out," she advised. The session was sponsored by AECOM.