APTA | Passenger Transport
October 26, 2009

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Rogoff to Business Leaders: Take Steps Now to Become ĎAmbassadorsí for Transit
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor

Peter M. Rogoff, administrator for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), participating in the Oct. 6 General Session titled “APTA Business Members Present: Doing Business in the New Economy,” called on business leaders to “serve as ambassadors for transit” by speaking to community leaders who may not understand the economic benefits that come from supporting public transit.

In his remarks, he emphasized public transportation’s “full seat at the table” in the federal transportation funding process, equal to that of highways.

“For so many years, we [public transit] were expected to be the lesser cousin when it came to surface transportation—the runt of the litter,” Rogoff said. “We were told to not compare ourselves to highway investments because highway investments paid for themselves through the Highway Trust Fund, while transit investments needed a combination of funds from the Trust Fund and the General Fund. Well … that paradigm is now dead. It’s been dead for well over a year, when the Highway Trust Fund first had to be bailed out with an $8 billion infusion of General Fund revenues.”

He continued: “We are all in the same lifeboat—highways and transit together. Everything is up for grabs, including the federal financing of our enterprise, which is why we all must lean forward and explain that yes, our enterprise provides all those benefits you want, and yes, it requires subsidies to do it—just like highways. We need to lean forward and make this case without apology.”

Panelists at the session represented large transit agencies, a bus manufacturer, and a design and engineering firm. Sharon Greene, APTA vice chair-business members and principal, Sharon Greene and Associates, served as moderator.

Frank Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro), described how the concurrent construction of five new light rail lines means “business as un-usual” at his agency. He reported that the various contractors on these projects have signed on to provide interlocking, not sequential, guarantees: if one firm is unable to complete its portion of the work, the others are bound by contract to take up the slack.

Another innovation, according to Wilson, is a contract under which a supplier takes full responsibility for its product for the first five years of operation. “It isn’t a warranty; the supplier steps up and serves as the owner for those first years,” he explained.

On the other hand, he said, businesses in the construction zone may receive financial support to sustain them during a rough period. “We can’t afford to have small businesses become casualties to the effort of improving neighborhoods,” he said.

Paul Soubry, president and chief executive officer of New Flyer, stressed the importance of understanding the needs of all stakeholders: the community as a whole, then suppliers, then employees, shareholders, and customers. He also called on businesses to invest in their employees to make them want to stay and to understand that value, not necessarily the lowest price, should be the primary issue for businesses and taxpayers.

“I think the days are past of thinking we can sell a bus, have it roll over the warranty line, then wait to sell the buyer parts,” he said. “We must sell the best bus for life, getting closer to the customer to maximize investment and minimize cost. To do this, the industry’s going to have to be engaged, not just sell a product.”

Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., executive director/chief executive officer of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the incoming APTA secretary-treasurer, described how his agency reinvested itself when it assumed responsibility for parking, taxis, traffic engineering, and bicycle and pedestrian networks—all at a time when California had taken state funding away from transit agencies.

Ford called the integration of parking into his agency “an eye-opener … Now, when we discuss placing a stop sign or traffic signal, we have to take into account the impact on transit. Over the past three years, we’ve worked to get people to think of transit as a unit rather than its components, and we look for something that will benefit all of them.”

Jane Chmielinski, executive vice president and chief corporate officer for AECOM, noted the possibilities of growth that come from responding to a tightened economy. “The challenges to transit have always been there: the need to do more, better, faster, with less,” she explained. “When there’s a downturn in the economy, what do we learn?”

She suggested having “more in the toolbox than just design-build”; determining ways to deal with risk; making the effort to attract workers and keep them motivated; and “respecting all disciplines that go into what makes transit so terrific.”

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