Passenger Transport - November 17, 2008
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Metro Settlement Reached in Lease-Back Deal
The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) appeared Nov. 12 in U.S. District Court along with a Belgian bank to determine whether the bank can demand $43 million immediately from the agency and its guarantors.
WMATA officials have asked the Treasury Department to intervene and for Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. to take immediate action to protect the 1.2 million riders who take Metrorail, Metrobus, and Metro Access every day. They have also asked a federal judge to temporarily bar the bank, KBC Group of Belgium, from collecting a $43 million payment. The bank is demanding this money because its long-term lease agreement with Metro has fallen into a technical default – a direct consequence of the global credit crisis.
Transit agencies and other public entities across the country are watching this hearing intently, because many of them entered in similar deals years ago. Because of the recent credit downgrading of the American International Group (AIG), these systems are also in danger of default. More than 30 transit agencies could face $2 billion in payments if their deals go into default, forcing the agencies to take drastic steps that could include cutting service or capital purchases or maintenance, which in turn will radically harm local economies.
Metro is asking the Treasury Department, which recently agreed to spend more than $700 billion to aid financial institutions, to act as a guarantor for Metro’s financial deals and for similar deals made by 30 other transit agencies nationwide, preventing the banks from demanding immediate full payment.
KBC is demanding the $43 million because of a technicality in a long-term financing deal that allows it to collect all of the money immediately if Metro’s surety loses its AAA credit rating, which is precisely what happened to AIG. This is a credit rating issue, not a loan default issue. If forced to default for termination value in this and other transactions, “we may have to pay more than $400 million to the Belgian bank and other banks even though these banks are receiving all of their payments as scheduled,” said WMATA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein. That $400 million would represent a two-thirds depletion of Metro’s $613 million capital budget for the year.
Also on Nov. 12, officials from nearly 20 transit systems sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Paulson urging him to back the credit ratings of the insurers of long-term leasing agreements.
Metro and KBC reached a settlement Nov. 14 to end a long-term leasing deal after nearly three days of talks in federal court. "This is a win for the riders of our system and taxpayers of this region," said Metro General Manager John Catoe outside of U.S. District Court. "Taxpayers have been saved tens of millions of dollars, and Metro no longer faces the immediate threat of cuts to our capital budget and a downgrading of our credit rating."
All parties agreed not to discuss the terms of the settlement.
An FTA Team Begins to Depart -- And We Thank Them
William W. Millar
November 14 marked James S. Simpson’s last day as FTA Administrator, after two and one half years. During that time, Jim proved to be a strong and dedicated advocate for public transportation. In an administration that believes the federal government should have only a very limited role in public transportation, we were lucky to have an appointee so aggressively supportive of our industry and of APTA. We will miss his insight, commitment, and his sense of humor.
Michael S. Townes, APTA Immediate Past Chair, said it well: “Jim was an administrator who was a breath of fresh air. He was someone you could talk to like your brother. His word is his bond. He digs deep and he wants do to the right thing for the nation – and then he’s fully invested. His efforts weren’t about political ideology. They were about advancing an industry that Jim Simpson understands has a lot to give to this country.”
So let me take a moment to talk about some of his accomplishments. The list is long; I will highlight just a few.
* During his tenure, Jim signed a record number of Full Funding Grant Agreements, including one for The Tide in Hampton Roads, Virginia’s first light rail line, and an innovative five-corridor agreement in Salt Lake City, Utah.
* We would not have our current standards program, were it not for Jim’s efforts. In December 2007, FTA awarded a $1.9 million grant to APTA to develop new standards for the public transportation industry. This grant will help our industry build and buy buses and rail cars at a lower cost, improving the safety, productivity, accessibility, and quality of transit systems across the country, ultimately saving the industry hundreds of millions of dollars.
* Jim initiated the Baldrige quality improvement program focused on improving customer service with FTA external customers, namely transit agencies.
* Jim helped implement public private partnerships with BART, Denver’s RTD, and Houston Metro.
* He showed innovation and vision in the areas of alternative fuels and technology. For example, he helped accelerate the process of making hydrogen fuel cell buses commercially feasible as cleaner, more energy efficient alternatives.
To say that Jim has a competitive streak would be understatement. At the APTA 2007 Bus Roadeo in Nashville, he competed in the transit CEO division and much to his chagrin, came in second to longtime industry leader Fred Gilliam, president/CEO, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin. Jim claims he would have won if he’d had the time to train!
Jim frequently attended APTA conferences, recognizing them as great opportunities both to report to the industry as well as hear from the industry. He also encouraged his staff to attend and participate. He used APTA meetings to present awards and highlight industry accomplishments.
Jim has a great eye for talent and assembled a first-class team to assist him. While they will be staying on for some time longer, I would be remiss if I did not thank FTA Deputy Administrator Sherry Little, Chief Counsel Sev Miller, and Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications & Congressional Affairs Wes Irvin, for their leadership and hard work. Jim also recognized talent in the FTA career staff and supported their growth.
Not everything Jim did was to our liking, but he worked hard and honestly every day. Those of us who worked closely with Jim say “thank-you” for your accomplishments. We wish you well in your future endeavors and hope you will remain active in the public transportation industry.
FTA Administrator Simpson Steps Down
With FTA Administrator James Simpson’s announcement that he would leave his position Nov. 14, Passenger Transport conducted an “exit interview” with him last Thursday. From his views about the fuel tax to his plans for “after FTA,” what follows are excerpts from our Q&A with him.
How would you describe your term as Administrator?
This has been the most challenging and most significant professional and personal experience of my life. I truly believe there is no higher calling than public service. The memories of my time at the FTA will always bring a smile to my face.
My tenure at FTA has been filled with challenges, but through it all, I tried to keep in mind some good advice I was given by Lee Sander [NY MTA], long before I took this job. Lee told me that “good policy is good politics.” If you put politics first, it’s going to get you in trouble. But if you’re working for the good of the people, you can go to bed at night and sleep, partisanship aside. As the Administrator, I always sought to put policy ahead of politics, and I think I largely succeeded.
What do you consider your biggest successes?
I think people who tend to view the Bush Administration as anti-transit don’t realize how much we actually accomplished. For example, on my watch, we awarded the highest amount of Full Funding Grant Agreements—roughly $14 billion—of all time. This helped move many important capital transit projects forward.
We’re also proud of the work we’ve done with APTA to produce public transportation standards—especially the expedited development of rolling stock standards. We also made strides on environmental stewardship, funding and supporting the transit industry’s efforts to innovate in the areas of alternative fuels and technology. For instance, we funded a program to accelerate the process of making hydrogen fuel cell buses commercially feasible.
I also think it’s noteworthy that during a time when the costs and risks associated with major capital transit projects have risen, we developed what many consider to be the most sophisticated forecasting tools in government—to help our grantees better predict actual costs in the future and avoid potential pitfalls.
There are many other accomplishments I could cite, including our very public efforts to promote public-private partnerships, and our work to support such partnerships with BART, Denver’s RTD, and Houston Metro. Private-sector contracts will help these important projects to move forward, along with public funding.
At the end of the day, we wanted to be the best advocate for public transportation.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about FTA?
That it’s a slow bureaucratic organization that makes things difficult. It’s not. It’s not the career professional staff that slows things down. Another misconception was that when you come into an organization, people are resistant to change. That’s not true whatsoever. The career professional employees are more receptive to change than the private sector because every four years or less there’s a new administrator or administration.
What was your biggest surprise?
How quickly I adjusted to working here – I thought it would take me quite awhile because I always had my own company and called my own shots. I thought it would be cumbersome and a difficult adjustment – but it was a very easy adjustment.
In general, the Bush administration has not been pro-public transit. Has that been an issue for you as the FTA Administrator?
I don’t want to dance around this question – I want to be forthright. There was that perception that we were not transit-friendly, and I tried to dispel those rumors. Instead of spreading [money everywhere] we concentrated on areas that are the real economic engines of the country. It looked as if we were taking money from a bus program – and I think that’s where the Bush Administration took the hit on not being transit friendly—and I don’t think that was totally fair.
Plus we had the cost-effectiveness measure as a criterion built into our New Starts program, and this is where I was not in agreement with my own administration. I tried to convince the Administration that we need to look beyond cost-effectiveness as a make or break measure, by also looking at environmental and economic development benefits. By having this cost-effectiveness measure as the Holy Grail, it didn’t allow me to exercise my discretion. If you just utilize strict policy guidelines without allowing judgment, you miss opportunities to invest in the projects that are likely to produce the greatest local benefits.
When you spoke to Passenger Transport two years ago, you listed one of your priorities as improved customer service. In your view, did you accomplish this goal?
I’d say absolutely, positively. Not only did we reach it, but we got hard data on how our regions and headquarters performed, and these data clearly show ways in which we’re serving our customers – especially our grantees -- more effectively, through better oversight, and in other ways. Now customer service is part of the culture of the new people who come on board. Transparent decision-making, internal changes . . . If you compare us to the other modes in transportation, you’ll see we’re ahead of the curve.
What changes have you seen in customer service in the transit industry?
Everybody I talk to – all the major [systems] and some of the rural ones – say the rider is the customer.
I think the transit industry is in great shape. What it needs to do now is work on the bottom line – be as productive as we can with no wasted labor. We need to use technology for fare collection rather than collecting cash – we need to do on the revenue side and the customer data mining side of the house what we’ve done with customer services.
What is your biggest regret as FTA Administrator (besides not winning the Roadeo)?
That I didn’t spend an extra four hours [training] for the Roadeo – but I think I did pretty well. As Frank Sinatra says, “Regrets, I have a few…”. But seriously, my biggest regret was my inability to ameliorate the differences between Congress and the Administration to execute the New Starts rule to re-balance the weight that cost-effectiveness carries relative to other measures, as I mentioned earlier. Another regret was that we really could have done a lot more to streamline the Small Starts process.
What level of federal funding do you expect public transportation to receive in the future?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m optimistic that public transportation will receive increased funding in the future, if only because our nation is finally recognizing that we must include transit in any strategy that combats congestion and seeks to alleviate air pollution.
The funding issue, though, is also tied to our current revenue structure. If you think about it, we have an 18-1/2 cents federal gas tax – that gives us under $40 billion a year – and we’re not going to get more than that. You can’t even keep up with the state of good repair. Europe’s tax is $4.50 per gallon, by comparison. Clearly, we need to rethink our financing paradigm.
So, are you in favor of raising the tax?
In the short run, it’s part of the solution. I think doubling it should be on the table – there should be a serious conversation about that. But you need more than that. Maybe if we doubled it and indexed it toward inflation – and in addition we did things with technology, like transponders in cars, where you pay for your vehicle miles traveled . . . We have the notion that freeways are “free.” Now you have too many cars with too few highways. There are also public-private partnerships, which are not a panacea. They can solve maybe 10% of your needs.
People are willing to pay higher taxes if they know what they’re getting in return. Increasing the fuel tax will help us get partway there, but it won’t get us there alone. [Consider] user fees for highways – and cities like New York should look again at congestion pricing. We have to be able to pay for this transportation infrastructure because it doesn’t come for free – and if we don’t make those investments, we won’t be able to compete with the world. Now’s the time to reinvest in America.
Given the chance to start over, is there anything you would do differently?
I would perhaps put a premium on making transit part of a bigger solution to our overall mobility challenges. Because of the fuel crisis, we have to look at mobility management and stop being stovepiped and stop looking at highway vs. airline vs. rail. The way to alleviate aviation and highway congestion would be to invest in the north-east corridor. You’d have fewer planes plus environmental savings – those are the kinds of investments we need to make.
What are your future plans?
I would like to be involved in the debate about re-authorization, even as a private citizen. I’d like to somehow serve in public service and be engaged in public transportation – or transportation in general. I’ve got a real interest in and a real love for it.
I’m going to join APTA as a private citizen. We always say that the best times are in front of us – I hope I get to serve the public in the future.
In the end, I am grateful to have earned the respect and support of the professional career staff of the FTA. I did say I wanted to leave the FTA in better shape than when I got here – and I hope that’s what I’ve done.
I believe that FTA represents the very best in what it means to be a great public sector enterprise – what I call “entrepreneurial government.” Even though you’re working for the big bureaucracy of the federal government —every single person here is valued. But it was easy – everybody cares about the mission here. It was sort of like being the coach of a great team.
Now is our chance to rebuild America – and if you’re going to have an economic stimulus plan – well, guess what – transportation should be in that mix.
Voters Shout “YES!” on 73 Percent of Transit Ballot Measures
Susan R. Paisner, Senior Managing Editor
While the major focus of last week’s election was no doubt on the presidential outcome, there were 33 public transit-related ballot measures initiatives in 16 states that attracted a great deal of attention – and set a new record for approval. Voters approved 24 of 33 ballot measures (73 percent) – which authorizes expenditures of nearly $75 billion – once again signaling their support for transportation-related investment.
Since 2000, nearly 70 percent of all transportation measures have been approved, a rate that is double that of ballot measures in general. Of the 24 measures so far approved, 14 increased sales taxes, four provided funding through property taxes, and three authorized bonds.
Biggest winning initiatives
In these difficult economic times, would voters favor – or oppose – measures that would make their lives easier – but cost them more? Over two-thirds of the time, voters said “yes.”
Take Measure R in Los Angeles County, which passed with 67.4 percent of the vote. It calls for investing $40 billion in comprehensive public transit and traffic relief efforts through a quarter-cent increase in the county’s sales tax.
“Voters once again have said they are fed up with traffic and are willing to pay for a comprehensive traffic relief plan,” Roger Snoble, chief executive officer of Los Angeles Metro, said. “The passage of Measure R will give Metro the resources to vastly improve the quality of life for all Los Angeles County residents.” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the vote, at a time of uncertainty in the economy, emphasized the need for investing in the future of transportation for the region.
California’s statewide Proposition 1A, authorizing $9.95 billion in bonds passed 52.3 percent to 47.7. “History will remember this night, when Californians demanded a new transportation system for California's 21st-century travel needs,” said Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “Thanks to tonight’s vote, a state-of-the-art, new transportation choice will link every major city in the state and move people and products like never before. The citizens of California have put the 21st-century ‘golden spike’ in the ground with a clear affirmation of high-speed trains.”
In the Puget Sound region of Washington State – including King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties – voters approved Proposition 1, which provides for a one-half percent increase in the local sales tax to support a $17.8 billion expansion package for Sound Transit over 15 years. A different measure failed last year. Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray noted several changes between this year’s successful ballot measure and the previous one, primarily that Proposition 1 covered only transit while last year’s package also included highway expansion projects. A review of voter initiatives over past years showed that measures do better when they are as simple as possible – so perhaps eliminating roads in this year’s measure made the critical difference.
Another difference? This year’s measure had a smaller price tag. “We also can’t downplay the fact that we had such a large turnout with enthusiastic voters, a lot of new young voters,” Gray added.
What made this victory particularly notable was the defeat of Initiative 985, which called itself a “congestion reduction measure,” but called for such measures as opening HOV lanes to through traffic during rush hours, defeating their purpose and creating more congestion. Initiative 985 was losing by a nearly 60-40 margin – not terribly far from the margin by which Proposition 1 – won.
More approved initiatives in California
Voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties approved Measure VV, which increases AC Transit’s existing parcel tax by $4 per parcel per month for 10 years. The transit agency requested the measure to help offset a projected $20 million deficit.
“About 72 percent of the voting public decided to vote in favor of that measure, which we believe validates our overall effectiveness as a transportation agency,” said AC Transit spokesperson Clarence Johnson. “The measure’s success clearly means that the public overwhelmingly understood our financial dilemma, and opted to vote in favor of those with acute transportation needs, mostly children, the disabled, and the elderly. We’re gratified that the public saw that public transit is important and was willing to back it in that way.”
Measure A in Santa Barbara County renewed the county’s current half-cent sales tax for transportation, which had been scheduled to expire in April 2010. A total of 78.6 percent of voters approved the measure, which will raise more than $1 billion over 30 years.
David Damiano, manager of transit development with the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District, suggested that the community has a strong environmental awareness, which helped the measure pass: “People here looked at the environmental benefits that transit provides to the community. They understand the importance of public transportation.”
In a district that includes Sonoma and Marin counties, Measure Q—a quarter-cent sales tax to support the proposed Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit line—received 69.5 percent of the vote. The SMART project will connect the California wine country to San Francisco Bay with 70 miles of rail and trails and 14 rail stations.
“Given our current economic concerns, this is a clear sign that the voters understand the value of green transportation infrastructure,” said SMART General Manager Lillian Hames. “They understood that now is the time to design and construct a project that reduces greenhouse gases, maximizes sound land use, and improves the quality of life for the North Bay.”
Two-thirds of voters in Stanislaus County, CA, approved Measure S, a half-cent sales tax that will generate more than $700 million for transportation over 20 years.
Voters approved a sales tax and advisory measure in West Sacramento regarding the continuation of using one-fourth cent of the existing half-cent sales tax for general government purposes until 2033. They also approved using the proceeds of the sales tax to fund the operations of a streetcar system serving West Sacramento.
Winning Handily in Arkansas
A measure regarding the continuation of service by the Jonesboro Economical Transportation System (JETS) in Jonesboro, AR, after three years of operation passed with 86 percent of the vote.
“You can’t sell a bad product, so obviously JETS has been doing a good job for the past three years,” said Steve Ewart, transportation coordinator with the city of Jonesboro. He described how the Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce formed an advocacy organization called “Friends of JETS,” which promoted the transit measure through an advertising campaign and a newsletter with a circulation of 2,500. The group’s “tremendously extensive effort,” in Ewart’s words, also included a speakers’ bureau, which spoke about JETS to city clubs and church organizations, and encouraging the local newspaper and television station to run editorials in support of the measure.
A Precarious Situation – Averted
The Western Reserve Transit Authority in Youngstown, OH, returned from the edge of shutting down with the voters’ approval of a quarter-cent sales tax measure in Mahoning County. The measure passed by about 13,000 votes, compared with a similar ballot initiative earlier this year that lost by 15,000 votes.
“We were in a position where we’d have to cut nearly 60 percent of our service because of state funding being cut to almost nothing,” said WRTA Executive Director Jim Ferraro. “This vote will actually give us probably triple what we were getting in the property tax from the city only. We’re putting all the service together, working throughout all of Mahoning County instead of just the city of Youngstown and the near suburbs.
Ferraro credited WRTA’s promotional campaign for the shift in voting patterns, explaining that the message emphasized “what public transit means to an area and how our area was suffering from people not being able to get to work…People are beginning to understand the value of public transit for Mahoning County residents.”
Fourth Time the Charm in Hawaii
Voters in Honolulu approved an amendment to the city and county charter that would establish a proposed $3.7 billion elevated commuter rail system (53 percent). There was doubt that this measure would pass, because three previous mass-transit plans over the past three decades failed for lack of political support. But as reported in the Honolulu Advertiser, frustration over congested roads outweighed concerns about costs. Said Mayor Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann: “Obviously nothing can stimulate this economy more than the rail transit project.”
Neal Milner, a political scientist and ombudsman at the University of Hawaii, observed that the Mayor’s situation of an increasing fiscal crisis and the clear voter desire for this system is unfortunately what “every major politician, mayor, governor or president is facing right now. The typical way out of it, without raising taxes, is to cut the stuff you can cut and that’s not rail.”
Other Winning Initiatives
In Aspen, CO, voters approved a measure that provides for a 0.4 percent sales tax increase to allow the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to begin implementing Bus Rapid Transit, along with approval to issue $38 million in bonds.
Voters in Lawrence, KS, overwhelmingly approved three sales tax proposals totaling .55 percent for public transit. The 10-year taxes are a 0.3 percent sales tax to provide dedicated resources for streets and infrastructure, and 0.2 percent and 0.05 percent sales taxes for fixed route and paratransit, and creation of a seamless public transportation system with the University of Kansas.
By a margin of 65 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed, voters in Lansing, MI, approved a 0.787-mill annual tax increase for five years, beginning this year, to support the Capital Area Transportation Authority.
In Spring Lake, MI, 76 percent of voters approved a property tax levy of up to 0.85 mill for a demand-response bus program in exchange for a general fund reduction of 0.72 mill.
Two regional transit districts in New Mexico approved one-eighth-cent increases in the gross receipts tax for transportation purposes. They are the Rio Metro Transit District (Bernalillo, Sandoval, and Valencia counties) and the North Central Regional Transit District (Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, and Taos counties).
A quarter-cent sales tax measure in Mahoning County, OH, to support the Western Reserve Transit Authority in Youngstown passed by a margin of about 13,000 votes. A similar measure was defeated by a 15,000-vote margin four months earlier.
In Greensboro, NC, 59 percent of voters approved a bond measure providing $134 million for transportation projects.
A statewide measure in Rhode Island authorizing the state to issue $87.2 million in transportation bonds passed with 76.6 percent of the vote. The measure includes funds for commuter rail and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
Two Utah municipalities voted to raise their sales taxes by one-quarter cent each to join the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City. The vote in Eagle Mountain was 78 percent in favor, while voters in Saratoga Springs approved the measure by 66 percent.
In Milwaukee, 52 percent of voters approved an advisory referendum to dedicate a one-half percent local sales tax to public transportation. The measure does not actually institute the tax. “We’re going to take these results to our legislators and let them know that we need action fast,” said Chris Larson, spokesperson for the Quality of Life Alliance, which spearheaded the ballot measure in Milwaukee. “Property tax payers can’t wait any longer [and] transit riders can’t wait any longer.”
Not all the initiatives were successful. Organizers who advanced the losing measures will likely conduct research to learn what was behind these disappointing defeats, and do whatever is necessary to ensure passage next time.
Missouri suffered two major transit-related voting setbacks in this election cycle. One of the biggest disappointments was in Kansas City, where last week only 44 percent of voters approved two sales taxes totaling 3/8 percent that would have funded a light rail transit system.
“We are disappointed in the results and continue to believe that the Kansas City area needs an expanded multi-modal regional system to be competitive in the world marketplace,” said Mark Huffer, general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. “Elected officials from throughout the region are already discussing the next steps, which will surely include extensive community dialogue on the future of public transportation.”
Huffer continued: “While this week’s defeat was disappointing, we should remember that citizens of Kansas City, MO, have voted twice in the last five years to support funding for Metro bus operations. These votes are indicative of the important role transit plays, day in and day out, in the lives of our citizens.”
Proposition M in St. Louis, a proposed half-cent increase in the transit sales tax, also lost (48 percent in favor and 52 percent opposed). “The footprint of the [St. Louis Metro] system may change; however, we are committed to continuing the industry-leading quality of service the region has come to expect,” Metro St. Louis President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Baer said following the election. “Proposition M came very close to victory, and we appreciate the support of the more than 48 percent of St. Louis County voters who said yes to preserving and building upon the transit system in the region. Nevertheless, the community has spoken, and now we are working to design the best possible transit system with the funds we have available.” One immediate result may be a cut in bus service and light rail operations.
A four-year property tax millage to pay for transit services in Kalamazoo County, MI, was defeated, with 58 percent of voters opposed. What led to this defeat? Three elements, suggested Kalamazoo Metro Transit’s Executive Director Bill Schomisch: “This was a graduated increase in taxes over several years – we think that was confusing, plus the economic condition of the country right now, and a huge turnout for a noisy presidential campaign. Our message just didn’t get out.” While they can draw down some funds from another revenue source, that will only allow the agency to continue service through July of next year. “If we don’t go back and secure a positive vote,” he said, “the system will cease to operate. We carry 3 million passengers a year and we cannot not have a system,” he added.
Additional Defeated Initiatives
A property tax levy for Salem-Keizer Transit in Salem, OR, of 49 cents per $1,000 in assessed value received only 44.9 percent of the vote, with 55.1 percent opposed. The measure would have provided for $30.4 million over five years to sustain transit service at current levels while adding service to overcrowded routes.
“Certainly the current economic climate didn’t help,” said Allan Pollock, general manager of Salem-Keizer Transit, of the defeat. He noted that the ballot also contained bond measures for the school district and for bridge repairs, both of which received more local support than the transit levy. Because the measure failed, Pollock said, Salem-Keizer Transit will begin implementing service reductions between now and March 2009.
Voters in Monterey County, CA, supported Measure Z by 61.2 percent – ordinarily a healthy margin – but this measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass. It would have supported transportation investment in the county with a 25-year, one-half percent sales tax, to be matched with federal and state funding.
A measure to enable Silt, CO, to join Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, supported with a 0.4 percent sales tax increase and a $10 vehicle registration fee, failed with only 41 percent voting in favor.
Only 36 percent of voters in Washoe County, NV, approved a proposed sales tax increase of 1/8 cent for transit operations and maintenance. Another measure, in support of state legislation that would allow additional funding for transportation projects, passed with 55 percent of the vote.
A measure in Bend, OR, that would have funded a transit district with a tax of $0.393 per $1,000 assessed property value, received 51 percent of votes in opposition and 49 percent in favor.
Too Close to Call
Measure B in Santa Clara County, CA, was still too close to call. If passed, it would enact a 30-year, one-eighth-cent sales tax for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority for a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District extension.
Honoring Veterans on November 11
Tuesday, November 11, was Veteran’s Day in the United States, Armistice Day in the United Kingdom, and Remembrance Day in Canada.
But no matter what it’s called, citizens the world over stop to pay homage to the men and women who fought our wars and risked their lives.
Public Transportation’s Contribution
Across the United States, transit agencies opened up their gates and their doors to veterans, offering free transportation. Here are just a few examples.
* NJ Transit offered free train, bus, or light rail rides to military veterans and service members who wanted to attend New Jersey’s World War II Memorial dedication ceremony in Trenton.
* Laketran in Lake County, OH, offered free rides to all U.S. veterans aboard all Laketran buses from Nov. 11 through Nov. 16. “Laketran wants to recognize and show our appreciation for the men and women of our armed forces,” said its General Manager Frank Polivka.
* And in San Joaquin, CA, the Regional Transit District (RTD) offered free rides to U.S. veterans on all RTD service in Stockton and San Joaquin County.
In Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission provided free rides for veterans – all they had to do was show their war medals or uniform. In addition, to ensure that children understand about the importance of the poppy (the only item that continued to grow after the devastation on the World War I battlefields in Belgium and northern France), each year the TTC holds a poppy “launch” where war veterans in uniform pin the flower on young school children. This year the launch was held at the TTC Davisville subway station.
Echoing the thoughts of many, Paul Rapp, RTD marketing and communications manager, said:
“RTD is cognizant of the contributions of our community’s veterans, and this is one way we’re able to give our support to that community and recognize them for their efforts.”
Bill Hurd Dies; Transit Leader, APTA Hall of Fame Member
William H. (Bill) Hurd, a longtime former chairman of the Alexandria Transit Company (DASH) Board of Directors in Alexandria, VA, and a member of the APTA Hall of Fame, died Oct. 25 at the age of 93. Hurd retired from the DASH board in 2006.
Even before the creation of the DASH system in 1984, Hurd was a transit leader in Alexandria. He chaired the city’s Transitional Task Force and led the city into the reality of planning and operating a fledging bus system, created to be responsive to local needs and to meet certain community objectives.
Hurd served 23 years as chairman of the DASH system; during his tenure, the agency received the APTA Outstanding Achievement Award for small transit agencies only three years after it began operation. APTA named Hurd to its Hall of Fame in 1988, and he received the Virginia Transit Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
“Hurd instilled this public service mentality in all of us who worked for him,” said ATC General Manager Sandy Modell. “Hurd was a mentor to many in the transit industry. He touched our hearts. To this day, there are transit managers and professionals who remember Mr. Hurd as the role model for how to operate our business, lead people, deal with political forces—in short, how to be the best public servant you can be.”
Before he became active in local and statewide transit programs in Virginia, Hurd was a federal employee from 1938 until his retirement in 1972. When the Housing Act of 1961 included transportation funding for capital loan programs and demonstration projects, he became one of the first employees of the newly created Office of Transportation, the predecessor to the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) and, later, the Federal Transit Administration. As such, he was instrumental in the establishment of a number of federal transit programs; for the last 10 years before retiring from federal service, he was associate administrator of UMTA. Hurd played an integral part in the birth and development of the federal public transportation program in the United States.
His professional career includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the U.S. Departments of Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency.
“Mr. Hurd’s legacy lies in the hundreds of millions of dollars of transit improvements—buses, railcars, and facilities which are a direct result of his administration of funding programs during the critical, formative years of UMTA and its predecessors,” Reba Malone, a past APTA chair, said at the Hall of Fame ceremony in 1988.
A Much Needed Ride to Safety
Susan R. Paisner, Senior Managing Editor
There is little more terrifying than facing a violent partner – knowing, as so many domestic violence victims do, that they have no means of transportation to escape.
But for domestic violence victims in the Louisville, KY region, there is a program in place that offers help, safety, and – most critically – transport to these individuals. It’s called Ride to Safety, and it’s the collective brainchild of the Center for Women and Families and J. Barry Barker, Executive Director of the Transit Authority of River City (TARC).
“It’s very simple to do and very simple to maintain,” said Barker. All a woman need do is step on a TARC bus and say: “I need a ride to safety.” Her travel is free, and the bus operator will radio to TARC’s Central Command Center to let the dispatcher know that there is a “ride to safety” request. At that point, the Center will send out a special TARC truck that meets the bus along its route. The person gets off and the TARC employee drives that individual to the nearest Center for Women and Families location.
“Some of these women don’t have car keys and they don’t have the opportunity to get away. I thought, here was an opportunity where we could extend the range of things TARC does and accomplishes to provide one more service for the community,” he said.
One of the Center’s community educators conducts specific domestic violence training for all TARC drivers during their new employee training process. For staff already employed, the Center conducted a one-time training.
The training has two components: General education about domestic violence, including dispelling myths, and explaining the Ride to Safety process to the drivers when a victim boards a bus.
One of the myths of particular relevance to bus operators is that a victim will always appear frightened. The truth, said Corissa Phillips, the Center’s director of communication, is that sometimes the violence has been such a part of their lives that they will not seem erratic or scared. They might also have been planning this for years and at that point, board the bus and calmly say: “I need a ride to safety.”
Barker noted that initially, he and other TARC officials had some concerns about whether they were subjecting their drivers to potential violence. The operators’ response? “Our drivers were unconcerned about it and have been universally supportive,” he said.
Since this program began in early 2007, the Center has found that about 3 percent of its walk-ins are taking advantage of it. “It helps our clients to know that those bus drivers have been trained by us and if they need a safe place to go, they can talk to the bus driver,” said Jean Russell, the Center’s VP for Operations.
“It would be wonderful if we could help stir the excitement around this,” she said. “In most civic communities, you know the public transportation agency wants to be helpful to provide as many safety nets as possible. And given our success, we think this is a very realistic program for other communities to put into effect,” she added.
“I think the beauty of the program is that it’s so simple,” said Phillips. “It has two ingredients: a shelter facility and a transit authority.”
This program appears to be the only one of its kind in the country. The Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence said she had not heard of it anywhere else, terming TARC’s effort “pretty unique.” The Director of Communications and Development for the National Network to End Domestic Violence also had not previously heard of TARC’s program – or a similar one anywhere else. In addition, a Google search yielded only hits on TARC’s effort.
So many communities could be implementing this partnership, Phillips said. “It costs next to nothing. It’s just two organizations with different missions coming together and saying – we can help each other.”
Barker agrees. “It enables us as public transportation providers to reach out and be that much more integral to the community. I urge other properties to reach out to similar organizations in their communities and see if they can’t get engaged,” he said.
Sidebar: An All Too Typical Story
A Spanish-speaking victim with no private transportation options needed to find safe shelter. Through an interpreter, the woman’s crisis counselor discovered that the woman was familiar with TARC, which further meant that with its Ride to Safety program – safety was just a bus trip away.
Since the woman did not speak English, her counselor advised her simply to board the bus and point to the Ride to Safety sign. She did that, the bus driver immediately initiated the process, and she was safely transported to the Center’s emergency shelter.
MBTA Appoints New Transit Police Chief
The MBTA Board of Directors appointed Acting Chief Paul MacMillan, with the Transit Police Department since 1983, as its Chief. As a member of previous Chief Joseph Carter’s command staff, Deputy Chief MacMillan managed the highly successful StopWatch program, a nationally recognized multi-agency effort to quell disturbances and disorderly conduct among youths on the MBTA.
MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas pointed out that MacMillan is the first MBTA Transit Police Officer to rise through the ranks to Chief in the 40-year history of the Department. “Chief MacMillan has a thorough understanding of what it means to protect and serve the public in a transit environment,” said Grabauskas. “In his years on the force, he has demonstrated an ability to build partnerships and reduce crime through innovative and effective programs.”
APTA Customer Service Challenges
Ask any public transportation general manager what is most important in the day-to-day workings of the agency, and the answer invariably comes back as “customer service.”
To showcase the significance of customer service to the industry – and to honor the front-line public transit employees charged with providing this service, each year APTA hosts several customer service competitions. Following in the footsteps of APTA’s two current successful customer service events, the Bus Customer Service Challenge and the Call Center Challenge, next year APTA will introduce its newest competition – the Rail Customer Service Challenge – to be held as part of the International Rail Rodeo. Station managers will be put to the test to see who stands supreme in the field of customer service.
All three of these competitions will crown the public transportation industry’s best in customer service in their respective fields. Participants face a panel of judges, industry professionals, who will present a series of real-life scenarios and questions. They will then judge the contestants on a number of criteria, including professionalism, overall customer service attitude, and the ability to adequately resolve the issues presented. In addition, how contestants think on their feet and solve problems quickly will also be counted in the scoring, with the winner chosen based on the total number of points assessed.
The Bus Customer Service Challenge, the oldest of APTA’s customer service competitions that honors bus operators for their outstanding customer service, is held each year as part of the International Bus Roadeo competition.
In 2008, because of the success of the Bus Customer Service Challenge, APTA introduced the Call Center Customer Service Challenge. This competition tests the talents of the best transit telephone customer service representatives from across North America as they face a series of real-life customer information call scenarios. A panel of industry experts judge the contestants on how they resolve each call.
Look for more information on each of these customer service events soon.
Transit Operators Help Rescue Missing Children
Public transportation employees in Nevada and Virginia went beyond the call of duty to help rescue children who had been reported missing with Amber Alerts.
Julio Diaz, a bus operator with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, was operating an RTC paratransit vehicle when he spotted 6-year-old kidnap victim Cole Puffinburger late Oct. 18 on a sidewalk outside a church in Las Vegas after seeing the Amber Alert.
Once aboard the bus, the boy identified himself as the child kidnapped at gunpoint from his home four days earlier, who had been the subject of a massive search. He told Diaz he had been dropped off just a few minutes before and had not seen his mother for a few days.
Diaz immediately contacted his dispatcher, who summoned police. After positively identifying the boy, police took him to University Medical Center, where he was examined and released to his father. The child was unharmed.
“Something was not right,” Diaz said about seeing the boy alone late at night. He said he pulled over to ask if the boy was all right. The child approached the bus and asked the driver, “Can you take me home?”
RTC General Manager Jacob Snow commended Diaz for being alert and taking action and noted that the commission board will honor him later this month.
According to Snow, the boy appeared to be in very good condition, saying, “He wasn’t crying or emotionally distraught.” Snow also told reporters the Amber Alert issued after Cole was abducted had bus drivers looking for the boy, and that drivers’ lounges throughout the RTC service area had posted the boy’s photo.
Authorities believe the boy’s kidnapping was intended to “send a message” to the boy’s maternal grandfather, Clemens Tinnemeyer, who is suspected of stealing up to $20 million from a Mexican drug cartel trafficking methamphetamine. Police say the two kidnappers, posing as police officers, abducted Cole at gunpoint after tying up the child’s mother and her boyfriend.
At a news conference following the rescue, Cole's father, Robert Puffinburger, smiled, cried, and thanked everyone involved in helping bring the boy home. “I’m just so glad he’s safe,” he said.
Another Transit Hero
Less than 24 hours after Diaz found the missing first-grader in Las Vegas, a child in northern Virginia went missing, triggering an Amber Alert throughout the Washington metropolitan area. Again, a bus operator provided critical assistance in the effort that led to the safe rescue of 5-year-old Kamron Wells, who was abducted Oct. 19 after wandering away from his grandfather and sister at a supermarket.
Police in Fairfax County, VA, searched for the child using helicopters, bloodhounds, foot patrols, and bike-mounted officers, along with surveillance footage from area businesses. After seeing surveillance tape of a boy matching Kamron’s description being led away by a woman, the police issued the Amber Alert, which appeared on local news broadcasts.
When she saw the Amber Alert, Jennifer Edwards, a bus operator with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, recognized the boy and remembered his name—having picked up Kamron and the woman at a stop just behind the supermarket and driving them only one stop, to a nearby high-rise complex—and immediately called 911. Within the hour, Metro Transit Police gave the FBI the videotape from Edwards’ bus, providing a valuable, time-critical lead.
“The FBI credits Edwards for her swift action and her detailed description of the suspect, as well our Transit Police who responded so quickly to get the video to the FBI, ” said Metro spokesperson Candace Smith, adding: “We’re very proud of Jennifer Edwards and our Transit Police for helping in the search for Kamron Wells.”
D.C. Police found the boy about two hours later at a townhouse in Washington.
Holiday Train Show Returns to Grand Central Terminal
The New York Transit Museum’s Seventh Annual Holiday Train Show opens Nov. 24 at the museum’s Manhattan Gallery Annex in Grand Central Terminal, and remains open through Jan. 19, 2009. The show is free.
Multiple train sets in the display make the magical holiday journey via rail from Grand Central Terminal to Santa’s workshop at the North Pole, with stops in between at subway stations, bus stations, and gas stations. Lionel is a sponsor of the exhibit,
which this year includes the company’s new models of MTA Metro-North Railroad’s M7 train and MTA New York City Transit’s R27 subway. Additional sponsors are the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
The gallery annex is located in the Shuttle Passage, next to the station master’s office. More information is available online at www.mta.info.