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A Bright Year Ahead for Public Transit

APTA President & CEO

At the start of every New Year, there is always an abundance of prognostication about what the future holds. For clues about what’s in store for our industry in 2016, we need to start with what changed last year.

Our recent past will shape the immediate future—and bring new urgency to some familiar trends.

Implementing the FAST Act of 2015

After years of non-stop advocacy by APTA members, Congress approved the first long-term public transportation authorization in more than a decade. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act provides $61.1 billion in FTA programs over five years, a nearly 18 percent increase over current funding. There is a lot to this historic victory—formula funding and a competitive grant program for bus and bus facilities, increased spending for New Starts, State of Good Repair, Small Transit Intensive Cities and additional time and resources to implement PTC equipment. Every policy issue raised by our industry was addressed in some fashion. And it’s the first time that passenger rail provisions have been included in a public transit law, representing a significant shift in the way the federal government views our interconnected, increasingly seamless industry.

It has been said that implementing a ­victory can be more challenging than winning the ­victory. Happily, our industry is already prepared to reap the greatest value from the 500-page FAST Act. With the same commitment we displayed ­during the lengthy legislative process, we will ensure that all segments of public transportation have a voice in how the new law takes effect. The next year will involve more than monitoring new rulemaking by FTA and FRA. It will require having a seat at the table—at every table—where decisions are made about how the FAST Act will fund, facilitate and strengthen public transit services in every community. And watch for public transportation to have an even more influential voice on a wide range of issues—from energy policy and sustainable growth to health and safety—now that the Transit Research Cooperative Program (under the TRB) is reliably funded through the Highway Trust Fund for the next five years

Emphasizing Safety and Security
Some predictions are the result of smart planning. It is no coincidence that “safety and security” is listed first in APTA’s strategic goals. It may be the defining issue for 2016.

As part of its responsibilities under the old MAP-21 law, FTA is poised to overhaul its state safety oversight program to bring it in line with the 2012 mandates. According to agency leaders, FTA is eager to leave its imprint on the new authority. The goal is to monitor, oversee and enforce safety throughout the public transit industry. Watch for more FTA initiatives as the agency ramps up its safety role.

PTC implementation will remain a top priority as rail operators work assiduously to meet the new 2018 deadline. The industry’s complete commitment to solve technical challenges—and secure the necessary financial resources—will be an evident part of the story in 2016.

Meanwhile, FRA is working on a pair of rules establishing a plan to require passenger and freight railroads to better mitigate their risks. After three years of debate, the new rules are intended to encourage railroads to conduct comprehensive assessments of their risks without fear of legal reprisals.

Technology will be a critical factor in other aspects of safety. As DOT prepares to mandate equipment in new vehicles that allows cars and trucks to communicate, will the new policy anticipate V2V advances among coach manufacturers? With the increasing popularity of bike-sharing services and pedestrian pathways, will 2016 bring innovations to protect an increasingly distracted public? And what new devices can we expect to see that will make riding and working on public transit even safer?

Finally, the issue of security will be front and center for the foreseeable future. Our industry has forged effective working relationships with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Protecting our riders, employees and the general public is a never-ending effort. We must continue to stay smart about safety and security in 2016.

Leveraging Transformative Technologies
Staying smarter is how the best organizations succeed and the most dynamic industries grow. It starts with knowing what’s just around the corner … and how the market is evolving.

We experienced this with buses moving to alternative fuels, the increase in electric-powered vehicles and more “circulators” and the popularity of mobile ticketing, which ushered in new customer practices and expectations. These technologies helped transform how we do business.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal predicted that rates of car ownership will continue to decline and within 25 years most people will choose to share, not own, vehicles. A recent article in Passenger Transport made the point that even under the best circumstances high-ridership transit will still be cheaper than shared cars.

According to Lyft, the issue isn’t one of “either/or” but rather “and.” Most of the car-sharing company’s trips in 2015 were to and from public transportation destinations: i.e., first mile, last mile. To put it another way, public transit was the reason many people used Lyft last year—and to some degree, vice versa.

Eventually, when autonomous vehicle technology eliminates the need for a human driver, transportation will become even more accessible to persons with disabilities, the young and the elderly.

That can be only good news for our industry if we look for synergies beyond the boundaries of public transportation.

New technologies can be disruptive or transformative. The choice is ours. As our industry tackles this challenge, watch for new informal partnerships and business models in 2016 that use technology to generate more riders and revenue.

Investing in a Knowledge-Based Workforce
Great employees never stop learning and evolving. The public transportation industry has always benefited from visionary leaders and a “can-do” workforce, but will our skills match our ­ambition in the near future?

If the New Year has you thinking about retirement, you are not alone. The median age of our industry’s workforce is 52 and within five years, half of all public transportation employees will be eligible to retire. That’s a lot of institutional knowledge that our industry can’t afford to have walk out the door.

We’ve made great strides in identifying hard-to-fill positions, partnering with outside organizations on training and recruiting new employees. Every year, more transit workers participate in a wide variety of career development programs, including those designed for technicians, early- and mid-career professionals and executive leaders. These investments pay dividends every day.

In essence, we are on a path toward “professionalizing” every job in the ­public transportation sector. In 2016, this industry-wide effort will intensify and it should include our older employees as well.

What will the next generation of transit workers need to master? New types of partnerships among private and public sector organizations; political savvy; business acumen; and an understanding of new technologies, large and small, and their power to transform society. These are the skills that collaborative, integrated mobility will demand—and reward.

As the proliferation of new modes of personal transportation grows in this New Year, we will discover more and more opportunities to begin defining our industry as the voice of shared mobility solutions. This is a role to which we are already well-suited: honest broker among competing interests and public service provider to all.

The most important element will be to continue making all of our industry’s jobs smarter—and more attractive and rewarding—and to invest in the people who have the ability to stay ahead of what’s next. Watch for the creation of more apprenticeship programs, certificates of skills mastery, and in-house and industry-sponsored learning opportunities that cut across sectors and silos.

A Happier, More Vibrant New Year for All
One year ago, we didn’t know if a multi-year surface transportation bill was possible, how $2 a gallon gasoline would impact our record ridership, if transit riders would ever gain the same tax benefits as drivers or how communities would vote on public transit referendums.

Today, we have the strength and stability of a fully funded, five-year authorization. Ridership has declined only marginally (and not anywhere close to 2008 levels when the price of gasoline was as low as it is today). Transit tax parity has become a permanent part of the tax code and tax credits have been extended to promote alternative fuels. More than 7 out of 10 transit-related ballot initiatives were approved because people know that where transit goes, communities grow.

Nearly 50 new public transit projects or expansions were begun in 2015 and many more will be put before the voters this year. In fact, North American transit agencies are expected to open 245 miles of new fixed-guideway public transit lines this year, more than triple the mileage opened in 2015. Higher-speed intercity passenger rail is spreading, too. Today 2,400 miles of high-performance rail are under construction and another 6,000 miles are planned or awaiting funding. How transformative is public transportation’s growth? Cities with significant transit systems are reducing their parking space needs when planning new construction projects.

The future doesn’t just happen; it is created. Thanks to the achievements of 2015, the coming year looks brighter than ever for our industry. All the elements are within our grasp—to be safer, smarter, more convenient, more accessible, more financially sound. The most exciting developments in the history of public transportation are about to occur.

Here’s to you, the professionals who make us proud, and to a wonderfully successful 2016.
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