January 19, 2009
Presidentís Perspective/Looking Ahead: A Year of Promise
By William W. Millar
As I think about what lies ahead for 2009, I’m reminded of the words of the great philosopher, Yogi Berra, who said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Anyway, here are my few thoughts on what is taking shape for the public transportation industry at the federal level.
Washington, DC, is abuzz—awaiting the inauguration of our 44th president, Barack Obama, and his new administration. Everyone is talking about the number of people planning to attend this historic event and the logistics of getting to and from the many different venues, from the swearing-in, to the parade, to the inaugural balls that evening. All eyes are on public transportation—as the only way there’s a fighting chance to accommodate this record number is by relying on buses and trains ... or walking.
Not only here in Washington but across the country, there’s much anticipation for our new president, grounded in the realities of the economy and the recession. I thought one of the commentators on MSNBC summed up the mood of the American people very well as we begin 2009 by noting that she has never seen such a high degree of both hope and fear simultaneously.
As I think about the upcoming year for our industry, I fall much more on the hope side, as there is so much promise and opportunity to advance public transportation. America today faces many challenges that public transit can help solve.
Support for public transit is at an all-time high. The American public has shown it strongly supports public transit by taking it in record numbers and by voting for increased funding in state and local ballot initiatives on Election Day, even in the middle of the economic meltdown.
APTA recently commissioned research to better understand where Americans stand on public transportation as we ramp up our legislative efforts. Nationally, a super-majority of Americans—73 percent—support the allocation of their tax dollars to expand and improve public transit, and there is even higher support “inside the Beltway.” As I see it, Americans get it. They understand that we need affordable ways to get around. They understand that we need to eliminate the stranglehold that foreign countries have on us due to our dependence on their oil. They understand that unless we reduce the amount of travel in cars, we will never be able to sufficiently reduce our carbon emissions. They understand that our quality of life is dependent on not being stuck in traffic, and that we must provide more—and better—travel options for older adults as well as future generations.
While I am optimistic about the year ahead, I am also realistic about the impact that the economy is going to have on each of our budgets. With local and state tax revenue decreasing, transit systems will have to reduce expenses, cut service, or increase fares. Businesses are also looking to contain costs and weather the impact of the recession. Hopefully, the economic stimulus bill can jump-start our economy and shorten the recession, while also giving a boost to many public transit projects.
Right now, it’s all about economic stimulus in Washington. Thanks to our members who answered our call for ready-to-go projects, APTA has identified $47.8 billion in transit needs that could be met by a two-year stimulus bill, and our survey identified more than $12 billion in projects that could be advanced in fewer than 90 days. As Congress works to get an economy recovery bill completed, there will be many different proposals and iterations. Our good friend, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has recommended $12 billion for public transit and $5 billion for high-speed and passenger rail in his economic stimulus proposal. It is unclear what the Senate will propose as I write this.
It’s important that we all make the case for public transit investment in the economic recovery legislation. Now is the time to invest in infrastructure for the 21st century that will have the triple benefit of boosting the economy, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and decreasing carbon emissions. It’s also important that transit systems work to make sure their ready-to-go projects are ready to go as quickly as possible once the stimulus money is made available.
While President-elect Obama had asked for a bill to be on his desk by the time he is inaugurated, Congressional leaders are saying they will be done by mid-February. Time will tell!
Turning to other legislative issues for 2009, authorization of SAFETEA-LU legislation will be front and center. This important piece of transit and highway legislation expires on Sept. 30, and I believe we are well positioned to push for significant increases in investment and other favorable policy changes
The APTA Board of Directors approved recommendations developed over the last year by the Legislative Committee and the Authorization Task Force that calls for investment of $123 billion for public transit, more than double the current investment, and our Research, Communications, and Advocacy (RCA) program is now in full gear. Congress is going to have to wrestle with finding new revenue sources or increasing the gas tax to fund the bill, so there will be many twists and turns during the year.
It is also expected that Congress will focus on energy and climate change legislation this year, and our goal is to make sure that public transit is part of these bills.
So as I sum up my thoughts for the year ahead, let me quote Yogi Berra again: “The future isn’t what it used to be.” You’re right, Yogi; it is going to be better.