January 17, 2011
The classifieds in this issue include 1 notice, 12 bids & proposals, and 7 job opportunities!
What’s Next for the Industry? Transportation Professionals Weigh In
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor, and SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
What are some of the critical issues public transportation will face in 2011? Passenger Transport interviewed members and received responses reflecting both local and national viewpoints, but all listed funding—first.
“I think that the industry wants to stand tall and seize the opportunity to continue the positive momentum of citizens embracing public transportation—and I sense optimism, but it’s constrained by the uncertainty of our funding situation,” said Michael P. Melaniphy, vice president, public sector, for Motor Coach Industries.
Also citing funding—and optimism!—was Gary C. Thomas, president/executive director, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and APTA vice chair. “We must make sure we stay focused on the funding challenges, which come in several forms and fashions. The obvious is getting Congress to pass a new authorization bill—one that actually moves transit and transportation to the next step. Maybe that’s optimistic but I think we’ve got to be optimistic,” he said, adding: “I think that even with the political shifts in Congress, transportation is one of those things that continues to span both sides of the aisle—and speaks to quality of life regardless of whether you’re a Democrat or Republican.”
Sandy Draggoo, chief executive officer/executive director of the Capital Area Transportation Authority in Lansing, MI, said: “The first thing that comes to mind, one of the biggest ones, is continued funding. It’s hard to really look at anything else when that seems to be the elephant in the room.”
Thomas J. Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stressed the importance of investing in public transportation as part of his 2011 State of American Business address on Jan. 11. “We must have a strong, consistent, and reliable federal commitment to infrastructure,” he said at the event held in Washington, DC. “Our core surface transportation, aviation, and water resources programs are all operating under a series of short-term funding arrangements; neither states nor private investors can get projects off the drawing board with this kind of uncertainty.”
Closer to Home
Several transit professionals reflected not only on country-wide concerns, but also on their specific regions. Chuck Cohen, executive director of Palm Tran in West Palm Beach, FL, said he is eagerly awaiting the census information, noting: “This will truly show that there has been a shift in people living in south Florida.” Noting that his system saw its ridership increase by 5.5 percent last year, he added: “I’m hopeful that depending on what happens with transit funding, Florida might get some additional money because of the increased population growth.”
Elsewhere in Florida, David Armijo, chief executive officer of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) in Tampa, spoke about what his system will focus on: “In 2011, HART will once again seek to revitalize, restructure, and reposition its operations and service to balance any shortfall in funds. It’s important to preserve our service and ridership to preserve our patronage now and in the future.”
HART Board Chair Alison Hewitt said she has issued what she termed a “Chairman’s Challenge” to her board members. “One of our main priorities is to really connect with customers and potential customers, to really bring an educational component that explains the benefits of public transportation—to all parts of the community,” she said. “We want to educate the public about HART’s diversity in the types of public transportation out there. We’re really going to listen and bring back some thoughtful answers. Especially with the price of gas going up again, it’s our responsibility as transit leaders to reach out to the community, make sure they know this is an opportunity to improve their quality of life.”
Cohen reiterated the importance of conveying the benefits of public transportation, saying: “We need the public on our side to tell people how much they need transit, and for people to know we’re doing all we can to keep our costs low.”
“Overall,” said Sharon McBride, a board member for CityLink in Peoria, IL, “our issues are funding, keeping our older vehicles in good condition, being able to replace broken parts, and keeping vehicles maintained. Also, we need to hire good new employees because our workforce is aging; we need to get people interested in working in the transit sector.”
McBride delineated a typical specific challenge a system faces. “Many of our buses are nearing the end of their useful life; we’ve ordered some replacements, but it takes such a long time to get them—that’s one of the issues. We bought some used buses from Duluth so they will be filling in, but funding is a huge issue for us.”
APTA in 2011
Concerning a particular event taking place this year, Thomas said: “From an industry perspective, one of things I’m very focused on right now—as hard as it is to say out loud—is how are we going to find a replacement for [retiring APTA President] Bill Millar? He’s been such a huge advocate for public transportation throughout the country and especially in DC, keeping people focused on the needs for traveling Americans … We do need to be sure we can find the right person who can continue to lead our industry and be the voice for public transportation in Washington, DC.”
Some Final Thoughts About the Future
As Melaniphy noted, “the future is a little hazy right now.” In addition to the key issue of authorization, he wondered: “What other changes might be contemplated for the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] under the current administration?”
John Inglish, chief executive officer of the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City, suggested another way to look at the issue of funding. “The critical thing for transit is to define its value in terms of dollars and cents,” he explained. “We’re good with the environment—save carbon, save travel time—but we never really put it in financial terms such as value and return on investment. Those are the things I think we’ll need to learn in the years to come,” he said, adding: “It’s time to reassert ourselves as a first-class, legitimate mode of travel and act that way.”
What else does the future hold for public transportation? Inglish said: “I think it’s time the transit industry saw in itself a new destiny. I think there’s slowly getting to be a realization that we’re going to be a critical mode of transportation in the future. We need to recognize that there are other ways to grow and expand, not just through public referendum.” He cited in particular opportunities for relationships with the private sector, which “we have not tapped into as much as we should, and other models not in play in the U.S.”
Thomas J. Donohue presents the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 State of American Business address, which references the importance of public transportation infrastructure.