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Rail~Volution 2008 Brings Innovators on Board in San Francisco
By PAUL SPRINGER, for Passenger Transport
The annual Rail~Volution conference rolled into San Francisco for four days in late October, bringing together a host of land-use and transportation innovators, forward-thinking elected officials, and imaginative developers, all deeply invested in an efficient and sustainable blending of transit development and land use.
Nearly four billion passenger trips were taken on all rail modes in 2007.
The Oct. 29 Opening Plenary Session addressed sustainability challenges facing transit planners from the local to the national level. Speakers returned again and again to the importance of using the imminent political changing of the guard to effect change that benefits all levels of society.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), founder of Rail~Volution, headlined the session. Other speakers included Gail Murray, president of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District, host system for the conference; Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission; Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm (formerly the Transportation and Land Use Coalition); and APTA President William W. Millar. Judith Bell, president of PolicyLink, moderated the session, and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who addressed the 2008 APTA Annual Meeting and EXPO in San Diego earlier in October, sent a video presentation.
While planning and transit-oriented development (TOD) are important to sustainable communities, Blumenauer said, “We have to get some money to make these visions come true.” After listing economic and political dilemmas currently facing the nation, he said that dire circumstances present an opportunity to make real changes, adding that he sees a “crusade to unleash a vast constituency to rebuild and renew America.”
Blumenauer also lamented the disconnect he sees between local needs and federal funding, which can lead to excessive highway construction. He suggested the establishment of a uniform match ratio to ensure local commitment to projects with federal backing.
The congressman announced during his speech that he was leaving the conference early so he could tend to key developments in Congress. He said he had decided in favor of taking action rather than talking about ideas, and the crowd responded with applause and cheers.
Millar spoke about U.S. rail projects either newly completed or in progress, including Salt Lake City’s FrontRunner commuter rail, Seattle’s South Lake Union Streetcar, and Phoenix’s Valley Metro Rail light rail line. He noted the significant economic benefits of public transit investment: the Phoenix project enters service later this year but has already attracted $1.6 billion in development, while the Euclid Avenue area in Cleveland—where HealthLine Bus Rapid Transit began operation Oct. 24—has drawn $4.3 billion in public and private investment.
Economic expansion, including transit projects, can support the nation’s ability to deal with population growth and cut back on foreign petroleum energy sources, Millar said. He also noted that, while leadership at the national level is important, development of transportation with long-term planning must be catalyzed at the local level. “It’s not what happens in Washington,” he explained. “It’s what happens in local communities.”
Heminger emphasized the need for change and new directions, especially with regard to the federal transportation funding authorization bill to be passed next year. He quoted from a recent report by his commission: “We believe that the federal transportation services program should not be reauthorized in its current form. Instead, we should make a new beginning.”
Ultimately, however, growth must come from individual rather institutional sources, Heminger said: “Individual behavior will be the key to change.”
Cohen called the current situation of economic and political flux a time of “palpable excitement and change.” He highlighted the importance of reducing reliance on driving, saying “Too many cars equals a rebellion against TOD,” and called the current administration’s proposals “timid” for the very limited extent they propose cutting back on cars.
Transit Leaders Share Concerns
Following the plenary session, transit agency executives shared their concerns in a forum moderated by Millar. Participants included Michael Scanlon, general manager and chief executive officer of the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans) in San Carlos, CA; BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger; John Ristow of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in San Jose; and Gary Thomas, president and executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).
Topics of discussion included the importance of TOD and the difficulty of balancing long-term planning with day-to-day operations in an environment where the media provides endless real-time updates on transportation conditions. “You’re only as good as your last rush hour,” commented Dugger.
Other key subjects were the importance of obtaining input from communities and using communication techniques such as deliberative polling to encourage people to re-examine their transportation opinions.
After noting anecdotal evidence that public transportation in some foreign countries is superior to what the U.S. has to offer, Scanlon ended on a high note: “People love to come back from vacation and talk about recreating Europe. Well, we can actually do that.”