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Making Federal Policies Work at the Local Level: Reflections from Both Vantage Points By Peter Rogoff

Chief Executive Officer
Sound Transit

I always thought that it would be a lot harder to actually do this business than it would be to talk about it in Washington, DC.

Both jobs are very different. When you’re in Washington, DC, you’re regularly trying to craft a federal policy that spans all 50 states and is applicable across the board. When you get to the local level, you have to find a way to make federal policies and programs best suit the needs of unique circumstances at the community level.

At the federal level, the focus is on funding—often in terms of making or breaking the trajectory of transportation at the local level. At the local level, that’s not entirely the case.For example, in this region we were successful in passing a $54 billion ballot measure this past November. In terms of our capital program over the next 25 years that the voters endorsed, the federal funding is important, but it’s hardly the lion’s share. Local dollars—paid for by taxes the voters endorsed—will drive public ­transit in this region.

I have a better understanding of why processes exist, having headed the federal agency that did the regulating, but again, there’s a tension between a one-size-fits-all approach and the unique circumstances of each agency.

There’s a saying that if you’ve seen one transit agency you’ve seen one transit agency. No two are governed the same, funded the same, or have identical operating profiles. Locally, you have to figure out how to make the federal processes work for you, or at least get through, in a way that optimizes federal funds for your unique needs.

Short- and Long-Term Challenges
. Day-to-day, our biggest challenge, as it should be for all operators, is maintaining the quality of the passenger experience—making sure that passengers get a reliable and desirable service. That has not always been an easy feat, so this past year we expanded our light rail network to include three additional stations, two to the densest communities in the entire state. As a result, we’ve seen our light rail ridership increase 89 percent from February 2016 to ­February 2017.

Such rapid ridership growth is a challenge. For example, we now serve light rail right to the stadium where the Washington Huskies play football. On game days, a lot of riders were boarding light rail for the first time. Every one needed to be educated on the basics of riding transit. Those are the kinds of quality issues I’m talking about.

Long-term, our biggest challenge will be to deliver the projects promised to voters on time and on budget. These are great problems to have, but we will be expanding into many cities not accustomed to having transit construction in their back yard. We’re going to need to work with every one so we can launch projects on schedule and not incur additional costs to taxpayers.

Federal Investments. It’s not at all clear where transit fits into President Trump’s vision for infrastructure investment. We were greatly disappointed that the president’s skinny budget excludes funding for new major transit expansions. That’s a real departure from the policy of prior administrations, Democrat and Republican.

This current administration has turned the spigot off rather abruptly, ­saying that they’re not going to fund new projects. We’ll be working hard to help Congress reject those proposed cuts, but we’re sort of dumbfounded, coming from a president who just a few weeks earlier gave a speech on the importance of investing in infrastructure.

Sound Transit and Washington state are well served in the Senate with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and in the House of Representatives with Reps. Adam Smith, ranking member, Armed Services Committee, and Rick Larsen, a senior member, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. They have all been extraordinarily supportive of transit investments and have vowed to try to reverse the cuts, but it’s an uphill battle. We hope that our investments and others like them in new expansions won’t be left on the cutting room floor.

Increasing Ridership
. Our first tool to get our ridership to increase has been providing a trip to places where people want to go. We certainly discovered that this past year. We opened just three new rail stations this past year, but ridership increased because we were going to two very popular destinations. By the time our full system is built out as a result of the ballot measure, more than 80 percent of residents will have high capacity transit near where they live. More than 90 percent of workplaces, more than 90 percent of employees will have high capacity transit close to where they work.

It’s about connecting people from where they are to where they want to go. Once you do that, ridership happens.

About Sound Transit
In addition to serving as FTA administrator and DOT undersecretary for policy, Rogoff served for 22 years on the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee, including 14 years as the Democratic staff director of its Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Subcommittee. Sound Transit, based in Seattle, plans, builds and operates express bus, light rail and commuter train lines. Formed in 1993, the agency serves the urban areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Ridership on its trains and buses has grown to nearly 43 million riders a year.

This “Commentary” is a summary of a 27-minute interview with Bernie Wagenblast on “ITE Talks Transportation,” a podcast of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Published with permission.

"Commentary" features points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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