December 20, 2010
Read the classifieds in this issue to learn about 7 bids & proposals and 7 transit job opportunities!
|2010: THE YEAR IN PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
Looking Back on an Eventful Transit Policy Year
BY ART GUZZETTI, APTA Vice President, Policy
In a year heavily influenced by a struggling national economy and financially stressed state and local governments, public transportation once again showed resilience in navigating tough times. In addition, a number of policy initiatives by DOT and APTA show promise for advancing public transportation in the years ahead.
Transit Withstands the Troubled Economy
Although long-term population, economic, energy, environmental, demographic, and public choice trends continue to point to long-term growth, public transportation systems in 2010 faced unprecedented challenges brought on by widespread declining state and local revenues. A March 2010 survey of APTA’s transit system members showed that over the prior year, 84 percent of public transportation systems had raised fares, cut service, or were considering either of those actions. The survey indicated that more than half of all transit agencies have eliminated positions and one in three have been forced to lay off employees. Even with those actions, seven of 10 systems reported facing budget shortfalls in the coming year.
APTA’s Legislative Committee and Executive Committee developed and adopted principles for emergency support for public transportation aimed both at ensuring that millions of Americans have access to their jobs and preserving transit worker jobs. The principles called for a new, free-standing, temporary emergency support program that would provide cash to all systems to be used for the continuation of vital public transportation services and avoidance of employee layoffs. In May, the “Public Transportation Preservation Act of 2010” was introduced in the Senate. The bill would have authorized $2 billion in funds for emergency transit operating assistance. Despite support from the transit industry, the bill did not move forward.
In spite of those service cuts and fare increases, and with nationwide unemployment looming near 10 percent, public transportation ridership nationwide for the first three-quarters of the 2010 was down only one percent from the prior year.
In his Jan. 27 State of the Union address, President Obama recognized that investment in transportation infrastructure is one of the key ways that Americans can get back to work. “We can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow,” he said. “From the first railroads to the Interstate Highway System, our nation has always been built to compete. There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products.”
Each administration launches policy initiatives that bring to light the priorities it wishes to advance. The Obama administration has emphasized policies that will influence transportation investments toward outcomes consistent with such national goals as economic competitiveness, energy security, safety, and preservation of existing infrastructure. These sentiments are embodied in the draft DOT Strategic Plan released for comment during 2010.
Key transportation policy initiatives include:
* Performance measurement. While traditional performance measures have evaluated the efficiency and effectiveness of transit services, the discussion has broadened to better connect investment decisions to national goals. In May, APTA’s Legislative Committee adopted Principles for a Performance-Based Transportation Program. In September, APTA, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Highway Administration, and Transportation Research Board collaborated on a national forum on performance-based planning, held in Dallas.
* State of good repair. FTA’s initiative promotes asset management practices, measuring the condition of transit assets, and prioritizing local transit re-investment decisions. In July, FTA released a study that showed $77.7 billion is needed to bring rail and bus transit systems into a “state of good repair,” with $14.4 billion a year needed to maintain the systems. On Nov. 30, FTA announced grant awards for $775 million in discretionary funds for state of good repair bus and bus facilities projects.
* Livable and sustainable communities. This signature effort of DOT, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency includes the core principles of providing more transportation choices; promoting equitable, affordable housing; enhancing economic competitiveness; supporting existing communities; and valuing neighborhoods. During 2010 many discretionary grants were awarded to streetcar and bus livability projects, to regional partnerships seeking to create a more holistic and integrated approach to connecting affordable housing, and for the development of area-wide plans for the reuse of brownfield properties. APTA’s Legislative Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Issues presented a statement to the full Legislative Committee in March explaining the vital, central role that public transportation plays in promoting livable, sustainable communities.
* Environmental sustainability. APTA’s new Sustainability Committee, which made its debut in May, has an ambitious work program in step with the DOT initiative. In addition, APTA’s Greenhouse Gas Working Group has developed methodologies that enable communities to quantify the impact of public transportation on greenhouse-gas reduction.
* Reform of the New Starts Process. In January, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced the rescission of policies issued by the previous administration that directed New Starts funding primarily on the basis of “cost effectiveness,” i.e., how much a project shortened commute times in comparison to cost. DOT now gives consideration to multiple benefits of new transit projects including economic development, environmental impact, and land use improvements. In May it approved a position statement that would discontinue Alternatives Analysis as a separate phase of the Major Capital Investment process. In August, APTA commented on FTA’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Major Capital Investment Projects, urging that the process be flexible, predictable, and locally controlled.
High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR)
The Federal Railroad Administration devoted considerable time and effort toward development of a national rail plan to help enable growth of passenger and freight rail. APTA participated extensively in this process.
In October, the APTA Executive Committee approved comprehensive recommendations for an ongoing and comprehensive federal HSIPR program; current federal law lacks an appropriate framework for such an ongoing program. The Executive Committee also approved a task force report providing for the full integration of HSIPR activities into APTA.
Transit Financing Initiatives
While generally not a great year for new revenues, advances in transit financing occurred on a number of fronts. Build-America Bonds, which offer a 35 percent federal subsidy for the cost of borrowing, provided a great boost to transit agencies at a time when the municipal bond market was stagnant.
Various proposals for a federal Infrastructure Bank were floated and have been the subject of much discussion.
In June, a landmark contract awarded for the Denver Eagle public-private partnership (PPP) project provides a new national model, a year following the highly successful Canada Line PPP in Vancouver, BC.
In December, APTA’s Legislative Committee approved principles in support of new financing tools for regions that establish local revenue streams for transit. The premise is that transit systems that obtain local, dedicated taxes should be given maximum ability to leverage those funds.
In 2010, transit projects competed effectively for the multi-modal DOT program known as Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery.
Lastly, transit ballot initiatives around the country had another very strong year, with 44 of 57 ballot measures gaining approval, a success rate of 77 percent.
APTA Reports and Initiatives
A number of APTA policy initiatives helped advance public transportation. In March a report titled “Funding the Public Transportation Needs of an Aging Population” quantified the greatly increased needs for expanded and enhanced public transportation services. A new report projects fuel-efficiency standards for transit vehicles of the future, an important benchmark in comparing transit emissions with automobiles that already are pegged to higher future standards. Another report looks at various MPO models and best practices for integrating transit.
APTA partnered with Duke University, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Apollo Alliance on two reports that highlighted the job-producing potential of the transit supply chain. These reports led to three separate meetings in the White House to discuss how transit fits into the administration’s clean-energy jobs agenda.
Finally, on Columbus Day, Oct. 11, APTA policy research was cited in a White House event. That day, the White House announcement noted the historic high unemployment rate in the construction sector, low financing costs, and low costs of materials and bids as additional reasons to move forward at this time on a surface transportation authorization bill. Since then, APTA has been engaged with DOT in discussing the elements and content of that bill.