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May 11, 2009

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APTA BUS & PARATRANSIT CONFERENCE COVERAGE

Members Discuss Context for APTA 2010-2014 Strategic Plan
BY JOHN R. BELL, APTA Program Manager

APTA members from across the United States shared ideas for the association’s next Strategic Plan in a May 3 brainstorming session at the 2009 Bus and Paratransit Conference. The session, deliberately informal in design to capture as much input as possible, was introduced by APTA First Vice Chair M.P. (Mattie) Carter of the Memphis Area Transit Authority, who is heading the Strategic Planning Steering Committee.

The open conversation with members centered around the trends, opportunities, and risks facing the transit industry in the next five years, ideal achievements, and how APTA can help make those happen. Participants offered several possible focal points for the next Strategic Plan, including increased education of state legislators on the benefits of public transit; workforce development to replace retiring employees; seamlessness across regions and public transit systems; increasing public awareness of public transit’s reliance on the gasoline tax; and enhanced community involvement by systems and business members.

Tight Belts, Straining Budgets
Attendees agreed that public transit systems must find new ways to maintain their bottom line in a difficult economy, with rising costs and declining sales-tax revenues. “Everybody’s under such a crunch now, and it forces creativity,” one participant said.

Carter cited the need to educate the public that public transit systems must either raise fares or discontinue some service.
 
Handling Volatile Fuel Prices
Speakers raised the issue of public transit’s cost volatility, borne of fluctuating fuel prices; notably, although high gas prices mean more riders, the increased costs to systems makes this a double-edged sword. “Prices go through the roof, and of course that affects our budgets,” said one participant, who pointed to greater use of hybrid vehicles and compressed natural gas as one possible answer.

Land Use Planning
Smart land use policy was a commonly discussed theme at the session. “I think there’s a paradigm shift now in terms of land use patterns,” said one APTA member, as far as land use becoming friendlier to transit.

The member also pointed to Bus Rapid Transit’s (BRT) ability to increase public awareness of public transit and influence land use. Successful BRT, he said, can show that bus service, like rail, can help change land use patterns for the better.

Seamless Systems
To engender more public support, develop seamless regional transit systems, one participant said. Every system should become easier to navigate and be served by a regional marketing program, a regional identity, shared smart farecards, and shared trip planner web sites.

This participant suggested greater use of technology to create a “one-stop shop” where people rely on transit for all trips, adding that greater inter-system cooperation could also make routes more efficient via intelligent transit systems.

Improving the Message
Carter noted that the need to communicate the benefits of public transportation encompasses all the challenges the group discussed. “We put money into operations and maintenance, but little into marketing,” she said.

Marketing can pay off big at the ballot box, noted one person at the meeting, adding: “We’ve passed three referenda in the past three years on public transit” because of good communication efforts. One participant made this suggestion for raising public transit’s profile: “I think that we’ve always been lacking a sense of emotional attachment to people we serve and people who fund us.”

Next Steps
APTA is holding brainstorming sessions with members throughout the spring to obtain input for the new APTA 2010-2014 Strategic Plan. Watch for forthcoming sessions at major APTA events as well as online.

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