APTA | Passenger Transport
November 9, 2009

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Opportunities, Challenges at 2009 Rail~Volution Summit
BY ANTHONY FLINT, Special to Passenger Transport

Cheered by the Obama administration’s commitment to public transportation’s role in building livable and sustainable communities, elected officials, policy makers, and other presenters at the 2009 Rail~Volution conference in Boston, Oct. 29-Nov. 1, discussed how to respond to the energy and environmental challenges ahead.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who founded the annual summit on transportation and land use in 1995, observed that the new administration “has hit the ground running.”

Because Congress is busy with health care reform and the climate bill, he said, passage of a federal transportation authorization bill is facing a delay, possibly until after the November 2010 elections. He said of the authorization bill in the planning stages: “By Congressional standards it’s a quantum leap, but in terms of what you know we need, we’re not quite there yet. We have an opportunity to scale up the vision [element].”

The focus on infrastructure—including high-speed and intercity rail—“is going to take investment,” Blumenauer told the gathering of nearly 900 people representing more than 200 cities. “We need to make this a bipartisan initiative … It’s Congress that needs to step up and do [its] job.”

APTA President William Millar agreed that the Obama administration has attracted many talented people with backgrounds in running major transit systems and creating more sustainable metropolitan regions.

“We have a president who knows and understands cities, an administration that understands transit,” he said, adding: “The public is demanding more rail. Now is the time for our industry to work together to make sure high-speed rail connects to existing rail, bus, paratransit, and other transit services.”

In his remarks, Millar referred to Boston as “the original transit-oriented development city,” noting that the city has had public transportation since its ferries entered service in 1630. He described how the growing popularity of public transit provides a sound foundation for moving forward: transit use outstripped highway use by two to one despite the recession; voters continue to approve transit expansions even if doing so means taxing themselves; and light rail is flourishing in many places.

Numerous U.S. rail transit systems have entered operation since last year’s conference, including an extension of New Mexico Rail Runner commuter rail; METRO light rail in Phoenix; in Portland, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon’s Westside Express Service, the state’s first commuter rail line, and the new light rail MAX Green Line; Sound Transit’s recently opened Central Link Light Rail in Seattle; and Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s Green Line light rail. In addition, the Metro Gold Line light rail extension in Los Angeles and Northstar commuter rail in Minneapolis/St. Paul are scheduled to open before the end of 2009.

Another speaker, former Massachusetts Governor, presidential nominee, and rail supporter Michael S. Dukakis, noted that the U.S. could “invest the cost of a month in Iraq on intercity rail and another month for a first-class public transit system.” He called for promoting transit investments with a marketing boost: “Let’s call it ‘the steel interstate.’ Let’s give it some pizzazz and zip.”

James Aloisi, outgoing Massachusetts transportation secretary, said he looks forward to the day when non-vehicular initiatives are no longer considered “enhancements,” and the federal-local transit funding ratio moves from 50-50 to 90-10 or 80-20.

Administration Speakers
Several Obama administration representatives shared their insights on public transportation issues.

Derek Douglas, special assistant to the president in the White House Office of Urban Affairs, said Obama is committed to integrated planning to make cities more economically competitive, sustainable, and inclusive, adding that Obama “views this reauthorization [of transportation funding levels] as an opportunity to transform these investments” and measure performance.

Peter M. Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, said the agency is working to make sure its internal processes “are friendly to and supportive of denser development. We have a decision process that takes far too long, is far too complicated, and often has perverse results in what we reward.”

He continued: “We can’t afford failure; we can’t afford projects that get half-built, or go over budget. That’s the type of headline that will kill this movement.”

Ron Sims, deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), spoke about the administration’s sustainability and livability initiatives coordinating the agencies responsible for housing, transportation, environmental protection, and energy—promoting housing along transit corridors, for example. Funding recipients must also be more expansive in their approach, he said: “We’ll insist on regional planning.”

Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari agreed that local partners will be key to the regional development process, citing the torrent of applications for federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants.

“In terms of coordinating with land use at the local and regional level,” he said, “this will not be top-down; it will be those communities who can help themselves.”

He added that DOT needs to be “less prescriptive, and more performance-based,” noting some 110 “stovepiped” department programs that are often “beat to fit” to address local needs.

The importance of transit and high-speed rail for economic development was also a major theme at Rail~Volution, as participants commented on the billions in investment dollars occurring along new rail lines. Several sessions at the conference focused on ways to capture the value that such infrastructure creates, to help on the financing end.

Shelley Poticha, senior advisor with HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, addressed the Closing Plenary Session. “Now is the time to be loud and courageous,” she urged as she worked with attendees on a to-do list to take ideas forward.

Anthony Flint is a Boston-based writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

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