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McMillan: Transit Is 'Backbone' of Mobility

Passenger Transport recently had the opportunity to pose several questions to FTA Acting Administrator Therese ­McMillan exploring some of the themes and trends that are increasingly central to the industry’s future, both near-term and longer range. Her comments follow.

PT: Evolving customer demands, demographic shifts, transformative technologies and growing travel options are creating what APTA is calling a “new mobility paradigm.” Please share your thoughts about what this new paradigm will look like and what it means for the public transit industry.

Acting Administrator ­McMillan:
We’re experiencing major societal and population shifts that present public transit—and all transportation modes—with significant opportunities. In the U.S., the over-65 population is projected to grow from 40 million in 2010 to 88 million by the year 2050. Millennials are also demanding a higher level of mobility and, in response, we see the growing popularity of transportation network companies and bike-share programs. Both older and younger generations are choosing to use public transportation where available because of its convenience and lower cost.

With an influx of new technologies that offer improved communications and digital payment systems, travelers have come to expect more mobility choices that include integrated, multimodal, safe and reliable transportation networks, shared-use vehicles and on-demand services. Transit will remain a key part of this interconnected network. Transit is, and always has been, dedicated to efficiency and equity of service. I have no doubt that public transportation will be the backbone of improved, integrated mobility networks around the country.

PT: One of riders’ biggest challenges can be first mile/last mile issues. As a result, some agencies are partnering with bike-share programs, e-hailing services and other on-demand travel modes, which are rapidly creating a “new normal” for first mile/last mile connections. How can transit agencies leverage these evolving modes?

McMillan: Many transit agencies are eager to make the leap to improved, integrated mobility models. DART, MARTA, San Francisco MTA, New Jersey Transit and many others are developing on-demand mobility service approaches that address first mile/last mile issues, improve paratransit service delivery and enhance the rider experience in schedule performance and reliability. As agencies move toward dynamic service models, they should realize that the real complications will be more institutional in nature rather than technological. For example, questions about insurance liability and compliance with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act will be more difficult to answer than selecting an app or fare payment technology.

That being said, transit operations are likely to face challenges such as:

Equity: Transit holds a unique role in providing and safeguarding equitable service for all potential travelers. Whether it’s low-income communities, the aging population or people with disabilities, all regional travelers need to have access to the on-demand integrated service model. Public transportation has a long history of upholding this basic value and must continue to do so, while demanding other parts of the system be equally inclusive.System integration: How do the technology and the service policies they adopt serve integration on a regional, multimodal scale? Considerations such as open data exchange arrangements or agreeing with other transportation partners on a common regional user interface, for example, are critical to success.

Success of the on-demand model in a multimodal context depends on strong participation from both public and private sector partners. These partners must show a firm commitment to support proposed on-demand arrangements technically, financially and institutionally.New business model: This model requires transit agencies to expand their view from serving transit riders to the broader goal of serving all regional travelers. If transit facilitates the use of bike-share and dynamic service models, we see a vastly improved transportation experience for the regional ­traveler that fosters increased transit usage as part of a cohesive suite of system choices.

PT: Many ­riders increasingly view—and rely on—­public transportation agencies as providers of access to essential community and social services, connecting people and health care, to cite one example. How does FTA’s Rides to Wellness program build on public transit’s expanded role in this area?

McMillan: FTA’s Rides to Wellness initiative promotes the benefits of partnerships between health, wellness and public transportation providers. Health and transportation professionals, who we convened several times at conferences and other venues, told us they see significant value for both industries to work together: Healthcare providers say they need to get their clients/patients to services, and public transportation professionals believe their infrastructure can help.

Healthcare costs in the U.S. exceed $2 trillion annually. Eighty percent is attributed to chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and arthritis. To manage those conditions, it is essential that people can travel to health screenings and other appointments. The healthcare system incurs significant costs for missed appointments and unnecessary hospital readmissions, so healthcare leaders see the benefit for an expanded public transportation role supporting community health and wellness. As healthcare seeks to find new ways to help people get and stay healthy, public transportation can be that essential partner to improve access to care, healthcare outcomes, and reduce healthcare costs.

FTA’s Rides to Wellness initiative is funding research, demonstration and outreach activities to build commitment, stimulate investment and drive change to increase health and transportation partnerships. The FAST Act supports demonstration grant programs and coordination activities that include improving access to non-emergency transportation. Rides to Wellness supports these requirements and the recommendations of the United We Ride Federal Interagency Transportation Coordinated Council on Access and Mobility.

PT: Let’s talk about FTA, the industry and the environment. Please comment on FTA’s support—in terms of funding, technical assistance and programming—of the industry as it implements sustainability policies and practices.

McMillan: Sustainability goes hand in hand with public transportation and has long been an FTA priority. Taking the broad view, getting people out of their cars and onto public transportation reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. FTA continues to promote use of public transportation as a green alternative to single-occupancy driving.
Recent agency programs aim to help the transit industry make itself more sustainable. FTA has supported research, development, and deployment of new environmentally friendly technologies for many years, providing both the means for technological improvements and the operational know-how to promote their entry into the transit marketplace.

Our Low or No Emission Vehicle Deployment (LoNo) Program, for example, advances deployment of the cleanest, most energy-efficient U.S.-made transit buses. FTA awarded $55 million in FY13 and FY14 funds, and we announced the availability of $22.5 million in FY15 funds for capital acquisitions, construction, and leasing of recharging, refueling, and maintenance facilities.

From a planning standpoint, our recent Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Technical Assistance Initiative promotes development near transit systems, a practice that creates sustainable mixed-use, walkable communities. The initiative aims to help community and transit agency leaders, particularly those in economically distressed areas who may not have the resources to maximize real estate market strategies and the latest development tools, create TOD projects that become desirable places to live, work, and visit. Learn more at www.fta.dot.gov/16046.html.

PT: As FTA continues to operationalize its authority for overseeing public transportation safety standards, please share some thoughts about the oversight process, especially as it relates to policy development, program guidance, technical assistance and training rather than rulemaking. Also, what can transit agency leaders expect in terms of safety-related audits and examinations?

The Safety Management Systems (SMS) foundational approach to public transportation provides the structure for developing FTA’s portfolio of policy guidance, standards, technical assistance, training and outreach to the industry. As the extensive set of safety rulemaking efforts—via MAP-21 and now FAST Act regulatory requirements—moves forward, FTA is designing and building the supporting processes and products the industry needs to implement the new rules. We’re confident they will make a safe transportation mode even safer. SMS includes a strong emphasis on data-driven safety risk management and assurance. This focus on identifying and mitigating risk is critical to informing FTA’s safety oversight strategies in program areas such as safety audits, inspections, investigations and examinations.

PT: Now that Congress has passed the FAST Act, the first long-term funding bill in several years, please comment on this growth in funding, discuss its implications for state of good repair and share what you see as FTA looks to administer these programs over the next five years.

The FAST Act provides an increase in funding for transit programs over the next five years. Starting with fiscal year 2016, our transit program will increase by about $1 billion each year to provide $60 billion total by 2020.The increases in funding target critically important programs such as the State of Good Repair Formula program, which received a $400 million bump to $2.5 billion total for FY16, and the Bus and Bus Facilities program, which received a $268 million increase to $696 million total for FY16. The bus program includes a discretionary funding competition, which was supported by many in the industry and the administration’s GROW AMERICA proposal.

The FAST Act also made important changes to procurement, Buy America, transit research, environmental provisions and other programs that we will be working to implement as we keep lines of communication open with the transit community that provides such great service to the riding public. As FTA works to implement FAST Act changes, please visit our website for updates and opportunities to engage in the process.

This article is part of an occasional series with FTA leaders throughout 2016.
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