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October 12, 2009

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2009 APTA ANNUAL MEETING

Economic Stimulus: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

J. Barry Barker, APTA vice chair-government affairs and executive director of the Transit Authority of River City in Louisville, KY, called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) “a program that is working” when he moderated an Oct. 5 session at the APTA Annual Meeting on the positive effects of the economic stimulus legislation.

Barker termed the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) efforts in obligating the money “remarkable,” and said the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is doing “a great job in building their process from scratch,” adding: “I think we should be here to celebrate.” He noted that ARRA funding forestalls fare increases and service cuts and has enabled agencies to take care of deferred maintenance. By using ARRA funds on a 30-year-old roof on one of his facilities, he reported, he replaced a roof “before it replaced itself.”

Susan Schruth, associate administrator of FTA’s Office of Program Management, provided an overview of ARRA because, she said, “some people are a lot less familiar with the Recovery Act than others.” The purpose of the legislation’s recovery aspect was to maintain and create jobs, and to infuse cash into cash-strapped state and local economies. Its reinvestment approach was to build and repair infrastructure.

To ensure that transportation agencies were implementing the streamlined processes developed at the federal level, Schruth said FTA trained its employees and “really stepped up our stakeholder outreach”—employing such efforts as webinars, conferences, the FTA web site, an FAQ section, links to other documents, and an automatic notification feature.

“I’m really excited that we met our statutory deadlines [to obligate funds],” she added.

All remaining formula funds must be obligated by March 5, 2010, and all obligated funds must be drawn down by Sept. 30, 2015. Further, said Schruth, “the White House wants to know how fast you’re spending the funds, so now we’re tracking disbursements.” She also discussed ARRA obligations by project type as well as the discretionary programs.

Henrika Buchanan-Smith, director of the Office of Transit Programs at FTA, discussed specifics of ARRA reporting. “If you’re having trouble,” she said, “just know that you can call 1-800-884-9190 and someone from FTA will be there to give you real-time assistance.” She stressed the importance of reporting, adding, to laughter, that “we call it progressively watching; you may call it harassment.”

Because FTA is being held accountable, Buchanan-Smith said, “we’re making sure that everybody who can report does report. By going to a detailed level of reporting information, we’re able to tell our story that ARRA funds are worthy for transportation and we’re putting people to work.” She told the audience that they could find the specifics of her presentation online.

FRA Deputy Administrator Karen Rae spoke about the elements put in place for reviewing applications for high-speed rail. “We needed to look strategically. As we advanced the program, it needed to be merit-based,” she said, adding: “We were quite clear that we were talking about a network.”

Instead of remaining in Washington, she noted, “We went to seven states where the partners might be. While it was a great intense process, it was worth every minute because we’re going to be partners and we want to make this work.”

Rae then quoted President Dwight Eisenhower, who said in 1958: “Our real problem is not our strength today ... it is the vital necessity of action today to ensure our strength tomorrow.” She reiterated: “Success is our focus; failure is not an option—we [at FRA] all pledged that we could make this work.”

The two main keys to a successful high-speed rail model, she said, are user benefits and cost-effectiveness. She and other officials will also take into account how the agency (or agencies) will mitigate risks (for example, in their project implementation approaches).

“We will not leave one penny of these dollars on the table,” she said emphatically, but cautioned: “We cannot afford to pledge money and not have it work.”

The session was sponsored by GJB Consulting LLC.

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