APTA | Passenger Transport
November 17, 2008

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Transit wins big at the ballot box!

Q&A with FTA's James Simpson

TARC provides a Ride to Safety


News Headlines

FTA Administrator Simpson Steps Down

With FTA Administrator James Simpson’s announcement that he would leave his position    Nov. 14, Passenger Transport conducted an “exit interview” with him last Thursday. From his views about the fuel tax to his plans for “after FTA,” what follows are excerpts from our Q&A with him.

How would you describe your term as Administrator?

This has been the most challenging and most significant professional and personal experience of my life. I truly believe there is no higher calling than public service. The memories of my time at the FTA will always bring a smile to my face.

My tenure at FTA has been filled with challenges, but through it all, I tried to keep in mind some good advice I was given by Lee Sander [NY MTA], long before I took this job. Lee told me that “good policy is good politics.”  If you put politics first, it’s going to get you in trouble. But if you’re working for the good of the people, you can go to bed at night and sleep, partisanship aside. As the Administrator, I always sought to put policy ahead of politics, and I think I largely succeeded.

What do you consider your biggest successes?

I think people who tend to view the Bush Administration as anti-transit don’t realize how much we actually accomplished. For example, on my watch, we awarded the highest amount of Full Funding Grant Agreements—roughly $14 billion—of all time. This helped move many important capital transit projects forward.

We’re also proud of the work we’ve done with APTA to produce public transportation standards—especially the expedited development of rolling stock standards.  We also made strides on environmental stewardship, funding and supporting the transit industry’s efforts to innovate in the areas of alternative fuels and technology. For instance, we funded a program to accelerate the process of making hydrogen fuel cell buses commercially feasible.

I also think it’s noteworthy that during a time when the costs and risks associated with major capital transit projects have risen, we developed what many consider to be the most sophisticated forecasting tools in government—to help our grantees better predict actual costs in the future and avoid potential pitfalls.

There are many other accomplishments I could cite, including our very public efforts to promote public-private partnerships, and our work to support such partnerships with BART, Denver’s RTD, and Houston Metro. Private-sector contracts will help these important projects to move forward, along with public funding.

At the end of the day, we wanted to be the best advocate for public transportation.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about FTA?

That it’s a slow bureaucratic organization that makes things difficult. It’s not. It’s not the career professional staff that slows things down.  Another misconception was that when you come into an organization, people are resistant to change. That’s not true whatsoever. The career professional employees are more receptive to change than the private sector because every four years or less there’s a new administrator or administration.

What was your biggest surprise?

How quickly I adjusted to working here – I thought it would take me quite awhile because I always had my own company and called my own shots. I thought it would be cumbersome and a difficult adjustment – but it was a very easy adjustment.

In general, the Bush administration has not been pro-public transit. Has that been an issue for you as the FTA Administrator?

I don’t want to dance around this question – I want to be forthright. There was that perception that we were not transit-friendly, and I tried to dispel those rumors. Instead of spreading [money everywhere] we concentrated on areas that are the real economic engines of the country. It looked as if we were taking money from a bus program – and I think that’s where the Bush Administration took the hit on not being transit friendly—and I don’t think that was totally fair.

Plus we had the cost-effectiveness measure as a criterion built into our New Starts program, and this is where I was not in agreement with my own administration. I tried to convince the Administration that we need to look beyond cost-effectiveness as a make or break measure, by also looking at environmental and economic development benefits. By having this cost-effectiveness measure as the Holy Grail, it didn’t allow me to exercise my discretion. If you just utilize strict policy guidelines without allowing judgment, you miss opportunities to invest in the projects that are likely to produce the greatest local benefits.

When you spoke to Passenger Transport two years ago, you listed one of your priorities as improved customer service. In your view, did you accomplish this goal?

I’d say absolutely, positively. Not only did we reach it, but we got hard data on how our regions and headquarters performed, and these data clearly show ways in which we’re serving our customers – especially our grantees -- more effectively, through better oversight, and in other ways. Now customer service is part of the culture of the new people who come on board. Transparent decision-making, internal changes . . . If you compare us to the other modes in transportation, you’ll see we’re ahead of the curve.

What changes have you seen in customer service in the transit industry?

Everybody I talk to – all the major [systems] and some of the rural ones – say the rider is the customer.

I think the transit industry is in great shape. What it needs to do now is work on the bottom line – be as productive as we can with no wasted labor. We need to use technology for fare collection rather than collecting cash – we need to do on the revenue side and the customer data mining side of the house what we’ve done with customer services.

What is your biggest regret as FTA Administrator (besides not winning the Roadeo)?

That I didn’t spend an extra four hours [training] for the Roadeo – but I think I did pretty well.  As Frank Sinatra says, “Regrets, I have a few…”. But seriously, my biggest regret was my inability to ameliorate the differences between Congress and the Administration to execute the New Starts rule to re-balance the weight that cost-effectiveness carries relative to other measures, as I mentioned earlier. Another regret was that we really could have done a lot more to streamline the Small Starts process.

What level of federal funding do you expect public transportation to receive in the future?

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m optimistic that public transportation will receive increased funding in the future, if only because our nation is finally recognizing that we must include transit in any strategy that combats congestion and seeks to alleviate air pollution.

The funding issue, though, is also tied to our current revenue structure. If you think about it, we have an 18-1/2 cents federal gas tax – that gives us under $40 billion a year – and we’re not going to get more than that. You can’t even keep up with the state of good repair. Europe’s tax is $4.50 per gallon, by comparison.  Clearly, we need to rethink our financing paradigm.

So, are you in favor of raising the tax?

In the short run, it’s part of the solution. I think doubling it should be on the table – there should be a serious conversation about that. But you need more than that. Maybe if we doubled it and indexed it toward inflation – and in addition we did things with technology, like transponders in cars, where you pay for your vehicle miles traveled . . . We have the notion that freeways are “free.” Now you have too many cars with too few highways. There are also public-private partnerships, which are not a panacea. They can solve maybe 10% of your needs.

People are willing to pay higher taxes if they know what they’re getting in return. Increasing the fuel tax will help us get partway there, but it won’t get us there alone. [Consider] user fees for highways – and cities like New York should look again at congestion pricing.  We have to be able to pay for this transportation infrastructure because it doesn’t come for free – and if we don’t make those investments, we won’t be able to compete with the world. Now’s the time to reinvest in America.

Given the chance to start over, is there anything you would do differently?

I would perhaps put a premium on making transit part of a bigger solution to our overall mobility challenges. Because of the fuel crisis, we have to look at mobility management and stop being stovepiped and stop looking at highway vs. airline vs. rail. The way to alleviate aviation and highway congestion would be to invest in the north-east corridor. You’d have fewer planes plus environmental savings – those are the kinds of investments we need to make.

What are your future plans?

I would like to be involved in the debate about re-authorization, even as a private citizen. I’d like to somehow serve in public service and be engaged in public transportation – or transportation in general. I’ve got a real interest in and a real love for it.

I’m going to join APTA as a private citizen.  We always say that the best times are in front of us – I hope I get to serve the public in the future.

Final thoughts?

In the end, I am grateful to have earned the respect and support of the professional career staff of the FTA. I did say I wanted to leave the FTA in better shape than when I got here – and I hope that’s what I’ve done.

I believe that FTA represents the very best in what it means to be a great public sector enterprise – what I call “entrepreneurial government.” Even though you’re working for the big bureaucracy of the federal government —every single person here is valued. But it was easy – everybody cares about the mission here. It was sort of like being the coach of a great team.

Now is our chance to rebuild America – and if you’re going to have an economic stimulus plan – well, guess what – transportation should be in that mix.


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