November 17, 2008
Transit wins big at the ballot box!
Q&A with FTA's James Simpson
TARC provides a Ride to Safety
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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